I have been inordinately nervous about this race. Every time I talk to people about it, they have looked at me funny. Until today, I had never done a criterium, so I have had absolutely no idea what to expect. Experienced racers tend to shake their heads and look down. They tend to mumble and appear to be recollecting past criteriums that had less than pleasing results. Newer racers tend to mention that they don’t do races with the letters “CRIT” in them. They then go on to mention crashes. As a matter of fact, almost everyone mentions crashes. One of the guys at the bike shop yesterday went so far as to say, “If you are going to race in Crits, you are going to be in crashes!”. After today, I would have to say that he is probably correct. But I would also say that if you are going to race at all, you are putting yourself at some risk of crashing. And, at least for today, in this one race, I didn’t find that risk to be particularly greater than the risk of a fast group ride. If I am going to enter and finish enough races to qualify for an upgrade, I think I will have to do some crits.
I took the advice of Jim Langley and rode the entire race in my drops (this turned out to be excellent advice). I also was hyper aware of what was going on around me at all times. Finally, I probably didn’t ride as aggressively as I might have because one of my primary goals in this, my first ever Crit, was not to crash. I am most pleased to report that I achieved that goal and even found that I was able to meet another goal that I had yet to achieve in my previous races. I finished with the main pack without getting dropped. I am not going to trumpet that achievement any further here, as the course was completely flat and I think that only the very unprepared were dropped.
Vlada and Larry were also in this race, Larry racing as 55+, and Vlada and I racing as 45+. The course was a completely flat rectangle around a business park with one sweeping turn and three regular corners. We went in a counterclockwise direction, so all the turns were right handers. They started us off with a whistle and the first few laps were at a reasonable pace. I found that I was making mistakes going into the corners. I took them too tight and lost speed and my peleton protection from the wind in doing so. I started to try and just follow a good wheel through the turns and when I could remember to do that, I found I was using much less energy and the pace was not hard. I must be slow on the uptake however, because I continued to find myself picking my own line on too many occasions going into the turn. I am sorry to say that this sapped a lot of my available energy and prevented me from being fresh at the end. I was often chasing back on coming out of turns, but I felt good and failed to recognize the toll that was being taken.
I tried to keep Larry and Vlada in my sights in hopes that I could be of some use to one of them towards the end. They were both in front of me and even though I could work my way up to them on the straightaways, I almost always lost 10 to 12 positions through the corners. With about 6 laps to go, there was a mighty surge coming out of the second turn. All at once, I found myself on the verge of getting dropped. I was 20 – 25 yards off the back and feeling the pain. I watched a guy next to me drop off the back, and then a couple more. I was at the crucial point for myself in this race. I put it in a harder gear, stood out of the saddle and began to chase. It was hard, but I caught on to the group before the end of that lap. At this point I needed some recovery, and I feared that another surge was coming soon. Luckily for me, there were no attacks as the group was working out its strategies for the finish. I got to rest until there were only three laps to go. I looked up and saw Vlada only a couple of wheels in front of me. I was feeling pretty well recovered, and I decided to move up and see if I could offer him a leadout.
That’s when the shi… hit the fan. Going into the first turn, there was a massive slow down. I don’t know why it happened, but I just paid very close attention to my wheel and where I had to go to be safe. I came out of the turn alright, but I had lost Vlada and the group was surging hard. I jumped to stay on and chased down the straightaway. There was a lot of disorganization in the group because of the surge and the disturbance at the corner. All of a sudden, I found myself up against another rider; bar to bar, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. We both maintained our composure and managed to separate safely, but I think that some other riders went down around us. I think we were lucky that no one else hit us at that point, and I know that I am thankful for Jim’s advice about staying in the drops.
I chased back on to the group, but the energy expenditure combined with the close calls had sapped my will to compete for a high placing. I really didn’t want to crash in my first crit, so I decided to be satisfied hanging on the back rather than fighting my way up in the group. Larry finished in front of me and I believe placed 5th (out of 15) in the 55+ group. I placed 33rd (out of 60) in the 45+, and Vlada was a little behind me, having been caught up in the slowdown at the corner. I believe he placed 5th in the 35+ race earlier in the day. Even though I was a middle of the pack finisher, I was pleased with the way the race went and at least for now, I think I may be willing to keep doing them so that I can become capable of giving Dennis that leadout he has so graciously asked for.