Wednesday, August 30, 2006

My First Bike Race Win!!

This was my second real bike race ever and was the 2nd-to-last race in the Dixie Classic Criterium Series held in Winston-Salem, NC at the fairgrounds. My first race was a total disaster (synopsis: I somehow managed to find myself 70th out of 75 Cat 4/5 riders going into the first turn and never recovered, then had a minor mechanical issue which psyched me out and was pulled) so I was anxious to try one more race before the end of the year and get at least a little bit of experience so I would know what to focus on this off-season. I'd like to do enough racing next year to achieve legitimate Cat4 status by the end of 2007.

I arrived early enough with my trusty new bike to do about half an hour of warmup riding on the course. It's essentially a half-mile oval with a turn at each end but they've added an S-turn in there between the two ends for good measure. The road conditions are decidedly sub-optimal with lots of bumps, various metal manhole cover things, and some crazy asphalt seams--but the turns are easy enough that they can be made without too much loss of speed if you're at the front and watch your line. I suspect the Cat4 and higher guys can pretty much pedal through the turns even at high speed if they're careful.

I'm talking about watching your line as if I have a clue what that means. I don't, but I was lucky enough to see a couple of guys warming up and it was obvious that the guy in front was an experienced rider who was showing the guy in back how to navigate the turns. I pulled in behind them just close enough to follow the line and it was extremely helpful. After a few times around the course I felt like I knew what I was doing so I just spun around until the start of the race.

I lined up on the far outside (the race runs counterclockwise so I was on the right edge) behind one other guy. After a roll-call--I'd say there were about 35 people in the group--the announcer yelled "GO" and I made sure to clip in quickly and bolt for the first turn. There were several people already at the turn by the time I got there so I stayed wide with the idea that I'd be able to keep on the gas until I could wedge my way into the top 10 riders on the straightaway. I was surprised to find that the speed of the group entering the straightaway was much slower than I expected and I found myself moving right up to the front of the pack. Hmmm, not good.

So there I am, in the main field of a race for the first time ever and I'm leading the way. I pulled for three quarters of a lap or so until we rounded turn 1 for the second time, brought the speed up to about 27mph on the straightaway, drifted to the left, and then flicked my elbow. Everyone stayed behind me. I decided "bag this, I'm going to get worn out pretty fast at this rate" so I just sorta soft-pedaled at about 130 watts until a group of guys surged past. In retrospect I probably should have made the "my turn is over" gesture more obvious by pulling over or something, I don't know. I need to learn the racing ettiquete since it's obviously different than a non-competitive group ride.

Anyway, with a quick kick I was able to bridge the gap immediately and then sorta worked my way politely but firmly into the 3rd or 4th position. Again, I don't know the protocol for this but I wasn't going to let the whole train go by after pulling for nearly a lap.

So, we go around another corner and the same thing happens that happened earlier: the effort required to stay with the group on the straightaway is much less than I had expected. Soon, I'm at the front again and I pull for nearly a lap but can't seem to get anyone else to take a turn unless I soft pedal. This pattern is repeated throughout the race. I probably lead the way for half of the race. There were a couple of times when I actually sat up and took a drink from my water bottle and still folks were reticent to take a pull. In fairness, there were about three other guys who took a couple of turns but I spent way more time up front that one would consider prudent.

During the race there were two different accidents. The first time I heard a sharp "ping" a couple of bikes behind me and it turns out one guy had overlapped wheels with the guy in front of him and actually managed to send his quick release into the other guys wheel. A couple people went down but luckily it was in back of me. The second time I guess a couple of folks misjudged the S-curve and took out a few people. Again, I was lucky to be in front of it. From what I can tell, only about a third of the field managed to stay with the front group until the end. I'm guessing that this was in part due to having to slam on breaks to avoid accidents and then not being able to catch back up.

Ok, so the announcer calls out "10 laps to go" and in my mind I'm remembering the story about the beginning racer who sprinted for the win on the wrong lap. My mind wanders a bit and I go over one of those seams in the road, my backwheel actually leaves the ground, and I feel my handlebars slip. Crap! Crap! Crap! After a triathlon over the weekend, I had flipped my stem yesterday back to the more upright position and had apparently not tightened it enough. The jolt of the bump was enough to start the slippage and over the next 10 laps the bars got more and more loosey goosey until they were so loose that they would actually move from side to side--not just up and down--if I wasn't not careful. As I'm riding I find that the only thing I can do is stay down in the drops with the bars pulled down but I can tell that I'm not going to be able to really stand up and sprint for the line with any authority because of the precarious handlebars.

We get to the final lap (yes, I'm listening for the bell!) and I let a few guys pass to catch my breath just before the first turn and then I accelerate smoothly on the last straightaway and pass the group as we approach the S-curve. I'm probably going about 28mph but I'm staying seated--I can't risk what will happen to the handlebars if I jerk up out of the saddle to sprint. Then what do you know but I'm gaining fast on a group of about eight lapped riders just entering the S-curve. Um, aren't you guys supposed to pull off in the last three laps or something? So I yell "Gimme the inside!", round the corner, and bring my speed back up as best I can--again just trying to stay smooth so as to not rock the proverbial boat.

The handlebars are so loose it's ridiculous at this point. I keep the gas pedal down as hard as I can without getting out of the saddle, feeling like it's going to really suck when the train stands up to sprint and blows past me because I can't get any kind of jump with these handlebars (and of course it's not the bars' fault--it's my fault for not tightening them). But the thing is, my acceleration prior to the S-curve had put a gap between me and the rest of the field and I manage to get through the group of lapped riders cleanly with about a 10-bike length lead.

So I go around the last corner as quickly as I dare and then I try to pedal as hard and smooth as I can on the final straightaway. I simply don't dare to stand up. The legs are burning but I'm trying to stay smooth and just be Jan Ullrich since I can't be Tom Boonen. I quickly glance back ever so carefully and I briefly think I see someone behind me and I'm mad as hell that I'm going to lose because I forgot to tighten my handlebars so I push for the line for all I'm worth. Again, sitting down but pushing as hard as I can.

I cross the line first with what I believe was a sizeable gap but I don't even dare to look back or even raise a hand because the handlebars are pretty much worthless at this point. I don't even dare to try to make turn one and cool down so I coast to a stop and get off the bike to go look for a wrench, relieved and feeling pretty darn good about having won. My prize, incidentally, was a water bottle with a few candies inside. Wooo-hooo! (Cat5 riders are not allowed to win monetary prizes.)

I'm obviously very happy with the win--I'm sure it's the first athletic event I've ever won--but more importantly there are several things I learned. First, no mechanical changes or adjustments the day before the race! Second, I need to figure out how to work with others to do shared pacemaking instead of spending the race on the front. Third, I need more practice in a race paceline--getting in and out, following someone around a corner--since it's way different than riding in a casual group ride. Fourth, I have lots to work on over the winter and spring to improve my ability.

BTW, I intentially rode without the MPH showing on my PowerTap, but I was able to gather some info after uploading the data:

Duration: 30:04.32
Average speed: 24.3 mph
Speed at finish: 33.2 mph
Average power: 270 watts
Normalized power: 283 watts
Power at finish: 720 watts for last 15 seconds (damn handlebars!)
Average heart rate: 183 bpm
Heart rate at finish: 196 bpm
% of time not pedaling: 13%

I can't wait until next year!!