Ambulances and firetrucks greeted Margaret and I when we got to the race course, in a business area adjacent to HWY101. The night before this race I had slept poorly, thinking over some ideas for tactics that my Bicycle Trip teammates Vladan Strbac, Larry Broberg and I had discussed over an informal team dinner at Seabright Brewery. And generally worrying about how our open-category 45+ race would unfold. It seems my worries were justified, though not in the way I had expected. It was a nasty way to start the criterium season.
Because my race didn't start until 2:00pm Margaret agreed to go with me, which is always nice, and so would my parents and brother Mark. We had started the day very pleasantly, with some extra sleep, and breakfast at Capitola's Wharf House. I had steak and eggs. The weather was simply gorgeous too, and all of this helped calm me down. We hopped in my car, which I had loaded up the night before, and sped over the hill.
We managed to get a parking spot right near where Vlada was warming up... it turned out he was actually just keeping warmed up while awaiting his 35+ 3/4 race's restart. Several bad crashes had delayed the start, and now they had to wait for the emergency vehicles to clear the course from a bad crash in his race too. Nobody likes to hear that, especially a racer getting ready to go out there and duke it out with some of the best racers around. After another 7 laps of racing Vlada managed to get 19th in the ensuing sprint finish (though it looked more like 10th to me), while Robbie was in 53rd. Very nice!
The course there is extremely simple; a wide city block with four turns and a bit of wind from the north. There were only a few scattered Bott's Dots and small potholes, some cones marked a storm drain and there was some gravel on the outside of turn 3 where teammate Robert Gaukel had told us he had flatted on the last lap of his Elite 5 race earlier in the afternoon. That's it. But I had just read a thread on the NCNCA Forum about the dangers of these "safe" courses, and that agreed with my own experiences, including my previous races on this course. Robert's race was filled with crashes, even though the field was only 50 riders.
I fully expected our 75-rider peloton to start the first lap at full speed in an attempt to open up gaps like last year, and I had told Vlada I would cover the first attack. So I tried to get to the front of the start line after a warmup lap. Well, I ended up a few rows back, and when they blew the whistle some guy walked his bike through the cones ahead of me and blocked me. That was rude, and I had to hold back before I could fumble for my pedals. So much for a jack-rabbit start! To top it off, some guy went down hard two guys ahead of me at the end of the first lap and I barely managed to squeeze by to the left of the downed riders. A close call already!
Fortunately no big gaps opened up, and the small ones that did form were shut down pretty quickly. But I wasn't at the front yet and couldn't see everything, and the pace was pretty hard for the first few laps. I was almost maxed out from working my way forward in the single file row of guys and I started to worry that a break had split off. So when I finally got to the front I spotted Vlada and asked him how many were off the front. "None," he said. Whew, I got lucky!
Then another guy crashed, apparently in the gravel Robert had warned us about. Sigh. But somehow I was able to stay clean and even recover from my earlier efforts. Some gaps did open up later where I would need that energy. The pace really did go down at this point too, and while we ended up averaging over 25 MPH most of the race wasn't too bad. I could even steal a wave to Margaret and hear the cheers of Bryan King (who got 25th in Elite 4) and my parents in turn 1. Thanks folks!
After one of our six prime sprints (!), as the guys at the front sat up and spread out over the course, I saw a few guys jump from the left side using the lull to try another attack. Sensing a threat I maneuvered through the distracted stragglers to make sure I could go with them or keep the pack together. Either result was better than watching them leave. In the process a slower guy (in Morgan-Stanley kit, I think), moved into me and called me a "f'ing idiot"... I thought that was uncalled for, and I suspect he may have felt so too later, because I never got a lecture from anyone.
Another much bigger gap formed later, and I saw that three or four guys attacked, with VOS and Alto Velo (I think) both represented. Again, I surged forward hard to catch them, pulling the peloton into the headwind on the front straight. Just past turn 1 they looked back and sat up when they saw that there were still guys like me willing to work hard to chase them. I was almost blown out again, but was able to stay near the front, pleased that I helped keep the peloton together. I liked our odds better in a field sprint, but would have been OK with joining a successful breakaway too!
As the announcer, the notorious Michael Hernandez, called out "5 laps to go," Larry and I rode together for a lap but I could tell I needed to move forward. I had to ride in the gutter at times, but it worked. I spotted Vlada ahead but he caught an opening that I couldn't squeeze into and I lost him. But I went around toward the front by myself and he then hooked up with me with a lap to go somehow, which speaks volumes to his experience and cool head; right on schedule! Our teammate Joe Platin was skeptical that plans ever work, but here was an example of plans working out perfectly! Now we just had to deliver results. Vlada started pulling me forward along the left edge of the pack, in the wind. I was barely working in his powerful draft as we moved forward. It was amazing. Just before turn 3 he sat up and looked for me to pass, and it took me a few seconds to realize that. I thought he would drop me off after turn 3. But I got it and was able to hitch a ride behind somebody else as we went around turn 3, then another guy through turn 4. But then I looked ahead and saw I still had to pass a bunch of guys in only 200m; too many!
Just then another crash, just like in the first lap, exploded right ahead of me! Two guys, one of them Peter Tapscott, a talented long-time racer, went down very hard (more info here). I barely got past by almost brushing the curb on the left, my wheels shaking (from my shaking hands?). Vlada later told me he had to bunny-hop his bike over them behind me! Somehow I stayed upright and was even able to accelerate past a few guys on the right, in the wind, to finish in 10th, my third top-10 finish in three races this year! In tough open-category 45+ races no less. I guess I don't suck so much any more! Vlada was 40th, because he sacrificed his race to help me... what a great teammate! Larry got our best finish; 3rd in 55+!
I realize now that I was hesitant at the finish; instead of drafting in turn 4 I should have been attacking... even in this group I can sprint well. And that might also have kept me ahead of that crash instead of behind it. As it was I "left some of it on the track," as the velodrome guys say, and finished with some untapped reserves I could have used in the sprint. Live and learn. I am sure part of it was my nerves from all the crashes even our experienced group was having. Vlada also said he regretted the decision to drop me off at turn 3 as that was too far out; waiting until turn 4 might have been better. Hard to say. And what's with all the crashes? I think it was early-season inattention and cabin fever combining to create dangerous conditions. And the "safe" course, as I mentioned earlier. (On a side note, the very next day one of the Elite 4 racers, Matt Peterson, was among the two killed on Stevens Canyon Rd by a Sheriff's Deputy. Very sad, and very close to home.)
After the race we hung out and watched people drag thousands of dollars worth of broken bikes away for repair while we listened to Michael wisecrack and hustle the dwindling crowd. The 35+ 1/2/3 race, which I considered entering after my friend Mark Deterline cajoled me, looked faster than mine, but Michael threw in a funny "Lanterne Rouge" prime in which two guys fought hard to be the last over the line, and then had to chase hard to catch back on... I don't think the 'winner' ever did!
We then packed up and dropped by my parents' house in Cupertino for heavenly traditional Danish sandwiches, with shots of akvavit and genuine Carlsberg beer. What a great way to finish off an exciting day! Next up: Brisbane! Hopefully I can repay Vlada and my other teammates for their help then!
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