March 31, 2014 Leave a comment
Clipipty-clop, clippty-clop, whoosh! I almost slipped on the tile floor of the swimming pool lobby as I dashed out of the bathroom and back to my bike. Fighting off a cold and dehydrated, I had chugged a bottle of Gatorade half an hour before, and, of course, the need to pee didn’t arrive until right before my group was supposed to stage. I clipped in and rode the three blocks to the start line just as other riders in my group were finishing a warm-up lap. My Garmin watch told me my heart rate was at 160bpm. I guess I’m warmed up.
It was my first criterium race.
Criterium races (or ‘crits’) are like cycling’s version of Formula One: riders race around a circuit for a set time, and then a set number of laps after the time has elapsed. Being in the beginner ‘C’ group, we were to go for 20 minutes and then three additional laps. While this wasn’t a formal race (but, rather, a ‘midweek’ race that is more for training and practice), I was sick, thirsty, tired, and jittery.
I made a mental checklist of everything the race organizers covered at the orientation session the day before.
“Keep your head up and your hands in the drops.”
“Don’t overlap wheels.”
“Pick your line and stick to it.”
The race manager gives us the go-ahead, and we were off to a neutral start for the first lap.
We took off at what seemed like a reasonable pace. (I had my watch, but I was smart enough to not look at it during the race.) After the first turn, I checked in with myself. “Priority one is to not crash out. Priority two is to hang on as long as you can before you get lapped.”
We quickly rounded turn two–the 80 degree one–and came a slightly downhill sloping section of the 1.2 km course. The pace seemed to quicken ever so slightly.
Two more turns and we passed the start line, and then one rider immediately attacks. The pack gets stretched out, but I see a handful of riders take off after the attacker. There are two riders in front of me who didn’t seem like they were going to give chase, so I passed them on the outside to try and hold on to the chase group.
I lost track of what happened after that. All I can remember are sensations and fragments of thoughts–my heart racing, my ragged breathing, my parched throat, the burning sensation in my legs.
I stayed more or less in the same area of the pack throughout the race. I traded places with one guy from Dead Goat and another guy from Speed Theory a few times.
When we passed the twenty minute mark, and the pace picked up for our first of three final laps.
Going into the second lap, I noticed myself feathering the brakes more often. Were we going slower? Are these guys tired, or holding back?
Bam! As soon as we rounded the first turn of the final lap, someone jumps again. I don’t see who, just a thinning pack in front of me. I jumped on the pedals and passed a couple of riders who weren’t as quick to respond. Things settled going into turn three.
I remembered that I should be near the front for the final sprint, so I moved up right before turn four, and as we rounded that final turn, I stared pedaling harder, only to see more than a handful of bodies pass me through to the finish line.
Still dizzy from the effort of the final lap, I laughed. “Still not much of a sprinter,” I say to myself.
But the sprint training can wait another day.
The pack settled back together for the warm-down lap, and there were smiles all around as we congratulated each other on a great first race. I was pleased that I managed to not be lapped–at least this time around.
Looking at the stats afterwards, I was surprised–not with how fast the pack was going, but that I had been able to keep up. In less than half an hour, we covered 16km, and averaged 37km/h. On the final lap, we were averaging 41km/h, which is still a far cry from the Strava record set on that course, which had an average speed of 51km/h, but, given that I hadn’t even participated in so much as a Gran Fondo, I’m happy with how I managed.
I stayed around to be a course marshal for the ‘B’ group, which was amazing, given that they were going noticeably faster than us. As I watched them zip around the course, I recalled how, last summer, I went to watch one of the midweek races and thought wistfully how amazing it would be to do that. Less than a year later, and less than a year after I started cycling again, I had done my first crit.
Maybe it seems overly sentimental to write about participating in an informal midweek race, but I learned a lesson that day that has nothing to do with cycling: even if I had come in dead last that day, I would have still been ahead of not starting the race. Racing sports only ever have one winner, but there is a reward for pinning the numbers on, lining up at the start line, and suffering beyond money or trophies or fitness or health–the value of starting something that’s difficult and finishing it.