Monday, February 9, 2009

Cherry Pie Criterium 45+/55+ 1/2/3/4s

2009 Cherry Pie Criterium 45+/55+ Open Report
By Jim Langley

Napa, Sunday, February 8, 2009 - Four fired-up Bike Trippers made the drive to Napa in quest of the giant cherry pies you earn for nabbing a top-3 placing. Three of us, myself, Russ Cadwallader and Joe Platin went up together, all racing in the 45+/55+ combined. And, once there we ran into Kimi Sudbrink who raced in the women's Cat 4 event. [Kimi: post a race report and let everybody know how you did!]

Thanks to Russ' GPS, getting there took less than 2 hours and we had plenty of time for an ideal warm-up on the impressively traffic-free and smooth roads close to the racecourse. Since we'd never done the Cherry Pie, we also snuck onto the P-shaped counterclockwise course and did a lap, while a race was underway, our numbers safely hidden under our jackets. They're pretty mellow up there in wine country and no one whined at us to get off the course, thankfully.

Our main concern was the weather. All the way from Santa Cruz it looked like rain, and with a U-turn at the top of the course (at the foot of the P), one ripping righthander with slick lane lines, along with a tricky chicane before the climb back to the U-turn, we didn't want any wet stuff dampening our day. Determined to get a good position on the starting line we staying warm riding up and down Grape-Press hill right next to the line. I'm not sure that's the official name, but there's a huge statue at the top of an old-time vintner pressing grapes. Standing there high above the course he's got a nice view, and I paused on one trip up to overlook the course and think more about how I should ride it.

Russ, Joe and I ended up on the front line at the start, and, apart from a case of nerves keeping me from finding my right pedal, we all rocketed off the line and were within the top 30 heading down the opening straight and into the first sweeper, where the race director had just warned there are frequest crashes. I mentioned our good warmup, but I had also consumed 2 Starbucks and my favorite energizer, a handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans. Yet, the buzz I had on the starting line was nothing compared to the jolt of adrenaline that shot through me the first time around.

As we banked into the turn, the 50 slower starters behind tried to swarm us and we fought to hold our perfect positions and move even further forward. We flew through the top of the P (3 hard left turns) but, this being the first time through, there was some squirrelly riding and a few bumps and shouts. Then we hit the left/right/left chicane and narrowly avoided a blind island just waiting to take the field down. That put us on the hill for the first time, and we applied some power to get to the front to make it around the U turn before the pack clogged it up too badly.

I felt the stiff headwind on the climb and noticed that it slowed the leaders. The first time up it was hard to tell where to be to hide from the wind and also whether to take the U-turn - on the inside or outside. I tried the long route and immediately gave up 10 places as guys squeezed through taking the shorter inside line. But, I latched onto a passing racer as we heading back downhill to start the second lap, and let him take me closer to the front. I started finding some good wheels and easy pockets in the pack and was able to keep my forward momentum all the way around, and as we hit the hill again I was even closer to the front, the pack seeming not yet ready to push it. I looked for teammates and spotted Joe sitting a few bikes up, and Russ even further ahead, both looking very comfortable. Yeah, Team Bike Trip!

I kept trying to move forward and stay toward the front but everybody wants to do that so it took focus, determination and letting riders know they couldn't bump me off wheels. I seemed to have the power to move up on the hill but Coach Mark had warned me not to surge, so I kept it smooth and steady and made sure I was in easier gears (I used a 12-27 cassette so that I could keep it on the 53). I kept spinning and always sitting on big, smooth riders, even if they weren't the fastest. I started taking the inside line on the U-turn at the top of the hill and I figured out how best to ride the chicane, right side, then the left side, then the right. A couple of times Russ and I were on each other's wheels and I believe Joe was only a few riders back. It seemed we were riding an excellent race. The Early Bird Training Crits and Advanced Skills Clinics Joe and I had done were paying off.

Competing so well was actually a surprise because, when I found out they were running the 45s and 55s together, I was sure that the 80-rider pack would let the top 45/55's escape and I'd have no chance. I felt I desperately needed to stay with Russ and Joe and the front of the group for a shot at a top-6 spot and the upgrade points I need. So, it was great to be 2/3rds of the way through the race and find that I could stay towards the front and that our team was working together.

About then our luck changed and it started to rain. It was more spitting than raining, but you could feel it from above, and immediately the traction changed. It was scary in the corners and a few guys hollered warnings, but everyone stayed upright for a few laps. What I noticed most was that on the climb, my rear tire was slipping if I gassed it too much, a disconcerting, power-robbing feeling. No worries, though, we came through with 4 to go and, though I was feeling a little cooked I was optimistic that I was ahead of most the 55+ guys, even though the monstrous Larry Nolan had opened a decent gap and was working us all good.

Checking for teammates, I couldn't find Joe, but Russ was right there and I thought he looked about ready to make a move. As we came up the hill and into the U-turn with 3 to go, I was on the outside slipping worse than before with every pedal stroke. I stayed wide coming into the U and suddenly heard a crash on the inside of the turn and saw that Russ had slipping and dumped it right in the middle of the turn. I was so winded I couldn't even holler at him. I hoped he was okay and that he might get back on.

The last 3 laps hurt, and while I tried hard to do all the right things, I made some rookie mistakes, spent time in the wind, and lost some energy and positions. Yet, as we hit the final turn and came up the hill in sort of a slow-motion sprint, I'm pretty certain I only passed people and it felt like I had a good finish in the 55+. In fact, I didn't see any of the guys I had marked as threats in the race, except for Mark Caldwell, who won the 55+ and who I didn't expect to beat anyway. Russ was at the finish, a little bloodied, bike a little battered, but he was still psyched about how we'd all done (he decided not to continue after his crash). Joe rolled up seconds later and said he was right behind me and that he had had a great ride.

Unfortunately they messed up the results again and I had to wait and talk to the finish-line judges, even watch the videotape of the sprint finish, and prove I was who I said I was in order for them to realize that I wasn't a DNF, but the 4th place guy in the 55+. While I was sure hoping for a taste of that famous Cherry Pie cherry pie, I can't be too disappointed. Only 3 guys finished ahead of me, Mark Caldwell, who's got more race wins than the number of chocolate espresso beans I've eaten, plus one of his teamates who was working with him, and a guy from another team - 2 guys I wouldn't have ever recognized as threats as I haven't seen them in any of the road races as best I can remember. And, the good news is that I finished ahead of the guy who schooled me at the San Bruno Hill Climb and other 55ers that beat me last year. So, it was a pretty darn good day.

Maybe Russ and Joe will chime in to give their race stories, too.


Satin Matt said...

Great race Jim...sounds like a tricky course

Dennis the Mennis said...

Yeah, great race Jim! Those crits can be scary, and rain more so, but you did really well. See you out there soon!