The first year I bought a real racing bike ten years ago, I raced in a series of criteriums from June through September. The lessons learned were many. How to ride in a hurtling pack. How to turn without braking. How to draft within inches of the wheel ahead of you. And how to get dropped.
That last one is the inevitable consequence of bike racing. Sooner or later, every rider on earth gets dropped somehow. It happens in a local criterium and it happens in the Tour de France.
The point here is that getting dropped is the natural state of bike racing for all but the most exceptional riders on earth. There is no shame in it really. It’s not always your fault. It can happen because the riders in front of you fail to hold the wheel of the peloton. A gap develops and suddenly you’re riding a mile or two per hour slower than the main pack and pop! you’re off the back. Bridging that gap takes guts and fury. It can be done, but you have to act fast.
All these lessons were fun to learn. Yet when I go bike racing now, there are still lessons to learn. Every time.
Last night I showed up for the Tuesday night criterium races. The crits are “practice” events hosted each week by a cycling club called Athletes By Design based out of Prairie Path Cycles in Batavia and Winfield. There are crit races from Cat 5 to Cat 1 and all points between.
The second race of the evening is essentially a handicap. The Cat 4 and 5 racers get a head start and try to stay ahead of the Cat 1,2,3 racers on the U-shaped mile-long crit course. At either end are hairpin turns.
That means the Cat 4 and 5s get to see their pursuers along the way. It is a scene much like the movie Apocalypto in which the lead character Jaguar Paw attempts to stay ahead of a band of murderous warriors angry that he was able to get away from their death game back at the Aztec colosseum.
The fact of the matter is that it all comes down to miles-per-hour. We Cat 4s and 5s thought we were humming along at our 23 mph on average and stayed away for three whole laps. It’s hard to do the mental calculus and know how far you are ahead of the chasers when you’re concentrating on your own pace.
On the third lap I was on the front doing my pull for close to a mile when the band of elite racers roared up and closed around the front of our group like a school of barracuda. The sound of real bike racers in action is definitive and profound. Noise from skinny bike tires at 26 to 30 mph is threatening and pure. Same goes for the whirr of more expensive bikes and rims.
The effects were so sudden it was hard to react. But I dialed it up to what I estimated to be about 26mph (my cyclometer is not yet installed on the new bike) and stayed with the pack for another quarter mile. Then we angled into a persistent crosswind and I was three feet back, barely hanging on, when the acceleration came leading up to the corner. I couldn’t hold.
If you stick your finger in your cheek and pop it out, that would have been an appropriate sound effect. POP! Off the back you go.
That meant the next 15 minutes were spent pedaling because our original group of Cat 4 and 5 racers was blown apart by the sweep of the faster riders. We were cycling detritus at that point. Because for all the riding I’ve done, the ability to hum along at 26 mph is relatively rare. I’ve actually had more success with it in open rides rather than crits, where the stops and starts of racing make it tough to ramp up every time.
My real goal in the crit this week was getting ready for the solo bike effort in the middle of the duathlon this weekend. So the riding I did alone was good practice for the race. I dialed it in and focused on a full pedal stroke and averaged 20.8 for eight miles of racing. That’s a good sign. My goal is to race at 22 mph.
This bike racing stuff is a fun gig, all things told. I rode pretty smart with the original bunch and would have done well with the 4s and 5s had we not been blown apart by the Apocalpyto gang of Cat 1s, 2s and 3s. But you gotta love it. There’s always someone faster out there, and that’s the point of criterium racing. Sometimes you get away from the murderers. Sometimes you don’t. That’s bike racing.
TRAIN HARD. COMPETE WELL.