|The Rookie Diaries: The "last" race|
...at least it was a good learning experience.
Now any racer worthy of their wheels already knows after reading the first sentence that last night did not go quite as I had hoped. Tonight I chalked up both my first and second DNF of the season. Oof. But I'm jumping the gun. Let me go back to the beginning.
After two weeks of no racing and mostly long slow distance, I was ready for a serious change of pace last night. My legs were feeling good and I had plenty in the tank, however, the course was a doosy. The course for the night was a T-shape with a hairpin at the base of the T. On arrival, I had already heard rumor that this hairpin was giving a few of the Cat 1/2/3 field some trouble and knew to look out for it.
I ran into a Don before the race and was happy to see him since I thought I'd be the only one flying the IC3 flag for the night. We did some quick warmup and I was able to crank out a 34.3 MPH sprint. Feeling good as I cooled down I headed to the start line after switching to my race wheels. I found Don and we said a quick prayer which I was thankful for. For some reason I have trouble riding at the front in technical courses and so I tried to move to the front of the pack at the start line. There were 68 riders starting with the 4/5 field and I was shooting for a top 15 finish.
The whistle blew and we were off like a shot for our 30 minutes of brain-blistering speed. I managed to stay in the top 1/3 to top 1/4 as we wound our way clockwise through the course, but that still meant that I was almost 20 riders off the front. Lap two through the hairpin claimed its first casualty with a low speed tangle of just two riders. The peloton gracefully navigated around it and continued on. To me, the hardest part about racing with the Cat 5 group is that the pace is pretty sporadic which makes navigating corners a lot more difficult and pops your heart rate into the red zone a little too unexpectedly.
With 5 or 6 laps to go I was feeling pretty good and trying to move closer towards the front of the group as I had been content to sit around 15th for most of the race. I had heard a few pedals scraping on occasion as we passed through the tight hairpin corner and had my own close call as well with a 2 inch hop of the back wheel from pedaling out of the tight turn too soon. But the real trouble came with 1.5 laps to go. I had stayed safe and out of trouble too long apparently.
The first 4 turns went flawlessly on the second to last lap and then as we made our only left hand turn, the first turn after the hairpin, I brushed wheels with the racer in front of me. It was like slow motion. I looked as he started to turn the corner and didn't expect him to slow down as much as he did and the next thing I knee I was buzzing his wheel. I can handle a little wheel rub, but I hit just straight enough that it wiggled my whole bike and I clipped the rider to my left and behind me with my back wheel and left pedal. The next thing I knew I was on a tangent off the curve aimed at the side of the road--still upright--but done for. I talked to another rider after it all and he said "Oh, so you were the guy who bounced out of the pack on that corner."
I checked over my bike and everything seemed to be in working order. It appears that I had a little cosmetic damage to my wheel wall, but spokes, tire and rims were intact and ready to ride again. So that's just what I did.
With only a lap and a half to go from the finish in my first race I was bummed out, but at least I had another race to make things right, right? Last night was the first night that I raced in a 3/4 field. I was a bit wary about the possible consequences and impending pain factor, but I figured it was worth a shot. My legs still felt all right and ready for another pounding and my heart was still beating, so I lined up to start after a short break between races.
I imagined that I wouldn't manage to stick with the 3/4 field (40 minute race) for as long as I did, but after an initial burst of high speed to stretch out the pack and navigate a couple laps the peloton settled into a more reasonable rhythm with a break of 2 riders off the front. Unfortunately, I was riding off the back. The nice thing, though, is that the 3/4 field is not quite as up and down as the 4/5. It's fast (I don't think we took any corners under 25 MPH besides the hairpin) but it's more metered.
Riding off the back is hard. Especially if you're strong enough to keep up with the pack; which, as it turns out, I was for awhile at least. The hard part is that the riders who aren't strong enough to hang in there are slowly peeling off in front of you leaving you with a gap to close. Closing those gaps is a fast way to eat through too much energy. As this started to happen I did my best to move up to the main field and it worked pretty well. Then they decided to chase the breakaway and I just tried to hold on for dear life.
I got gapped a bit, but another break of 4 or 5 riders got away and I managed to catch back up to the group as they slowed albeit ever so slightly. I also was able to take the corners in a little more of a kamikaze style since I was flying solo. It was at that point that I realized why I kept having to ride at the back. When I read corners in a group my brain charts my line, but also registers that there are riders where I want to go. Instead of connecting that I can follow them it sees them as obstacles and charts a new wider (and farther/slower) line around the same corner while the other riders who I have already passed take the corner inside of me and move ahead. Not so good when you are trying to keep up. When I caught back up to the back I tried to reprogram a little and managed to hang in on the corners a little more efficiently, but at that point there were only 6 laps to go and the peloton was ready to fly.
The speed ramped up and after chasing past the drifters off the back and fighting back after being a drifter off the back my legs were toast. They slowly road away from me as I tried to recover and pursue them yet again. I found myself with another rider from the Penn Cycle team and we did our best to work together until I made another and final cornering mistake for the night.
With 3.5 laps to go I headed into the infamous hairpin turn yet again. I let the Penn rider lead through after I had pulled for half a lap and tried to follow his line. I jumped up to chase and get on his wheel and my right pedal hit the ground. My back wheel jumped more than a foot to the outside of the turn, but I managed to stay up (maybe I should try bull riding or something like that instead). I pushed on to catch up but heard a "thup, thup, thup" as my back wheel went around. I yelled "Mechanical!" to the Penn rider to let him know he was now solo and slowed to the side off the road just as my back tire went BANG! Bummer.
As it turns out I blew the sidewall of my rear tire. I can only imagine it happened in that last corner as I accidentally hopped my rear wheel into the next county. The good news is that at this point I think the tire and tube were the only casualties. A moderately thorough inspection after the race didn't reveal any other glaring abnormalities, so until proven otherwise I will continue to ride. A little humbler and a little more wary of hairpin corners, but riding still nonetheless.
In the end it would appear that I managed to flunk out of the school of hard knocks last night even after I remediated and gave it a second try. But that's racing, right? An unfortunate way to end my season here in the Twin Cities, but I will have at least two more chances to redeem myself as a visitor in Illinois and Colorado over the next month. Hopefully better luck next time.