Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cat's Hill Classic, Elite 3

By Dennis Pedersen

I've now raced this historic and challenging course 5 times, and I know it doesn't suit my sprinter's legs... but it is such a cool venue that I keep coming back. And the old Victorian neighborhoods right in downtown Los Gatos are a great place to invite friends and family to come out and watch too.

We awoke to a light drizzle, but it was raining as we drove over the summit, and we passed two accidents that threatened to make me late for my 11:10 race start. Fortunately the rain got lighter, we got there in time, and soon Margaret was pinning my race number onto my team skinsuit and dropping off my spare wheels in the pit. What a trooper! And that was on top of making us a delicious pancakes-and-eggs breakfast too!

This race is one of the best in this area for spectators, with a demanding 6-turn course full of cracked concrete and slopes. The most popular spot to watch is usually "The Wall," a short but super-steep climb up Nicholson Avenue (over 20% grade!). The Wall challenges both our aerobic and anaerobic power, and our bike-handling skills with its abrupt left turn at the base followed by a leg-burning climb that requires quick and accurate shifting! I have always chosen to use 42x25-tooth gearing and that has always seemed just right. But the road was still damp from the diminishing rain, and I was now worried our tires wouldn't have enough traction as we pounded out the 700 Watts of power needed to get to the top.

But the section above Bachman Park, at the course's high point on Belmont Avenue, is also really key; I think of that section, on the last lap, as the real finish line as few can pass on the fast downhill that follows on Bachman Avenue, or after the last turn. That's where the real battle takes place.

The rain stopped! And after a 10-minute warmup I lined up with the other 92 racers... at least that's how many they said were signed up (I think it was less). Then we shot off into our first lap out of the 20 required... whew, that is a lot of times up The Wall! And the first 5 or 6 laps were really hard for me. Fortunately all of the friends and family that showed up yet again this year inspired me with their raucous cheers (thanks everybody, you are all awesome!). As the many laps wore on, The Wall took its toll as riders "sat up" exhausted just past its peak. This was actually a problem for the rest of us because we had to dodge them as they wobbled unsteadily along.

Even though this "Elite" race included many junior racers I really felt that we raced pretty clean. Sure, some stupid moves were in evidence, but mostly we stayed upright in spite of the difficult surface and the wet roads. I think these technical courses are actually safer than the wide-open flowing ones because the pack gets strung out. So when there are obstacles like at Cat's Hill, you have fewer mass pile-ups. One guy went slid out at the bottom of The Wall when he turned on the slippery painted stripes there; I barely avoided him and his errant water bottle. But nobody else went down with him, which is my point exactly. Otherwise the race went smoothly for quite a number of laps. Only a guy on a solo breakaway split things up... before he died. Margaret asked him later "Did you win?" "No, I bonked and didn't even finish" was his reply! In fact, only half of the riders ended up finishing, so his plight wasn't unusal.

The pack hesitated with about 5 laps remaining; we all knew the selection had been made and only a few had the freshness left to "lay down the hurt," while the rest would just try to hold on. The pace then picked up and guys did start taking more chances, and with about 2 laps to go, in turn 2, somebody went down behind me, right where I flatted last year. And the guy who crashed earlier on The Wall had gotten back into the race, thanks to the "free lap" rule (see the USCF rulebook), but got a flat tire near the end. Poor guy. I was really gasping at times, and even wheezing, but they never did drop me! Even so, on that last climb I was so maxed out I couldn't keep up with the leaders when they accelerated past The Wall, and continued accelerating onto Belmont. I was maybe 20th or so, and knew then that I wasn't in contention, so I just maintained my pace down the hill and across the line. My days of sprinting for 15th place, or whatever, are over! I ended up 30th place.

Afterward, I thanked my friends and family for their support, and... rode a hard interval into the hills above town while they walked down to Los Gatos Brewing Company for a tasty lunch. OK, maybe I'm crazy, but Coach Mark would approve! And make no mistake; I joined them there later after I got cleaned up and had part of Margaret's tuna sandwich, plus a super-tasty chocolate bread-pudding. Oh man, was that yummy!

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