Saturday, August 05, 2006

My First Bike Race

On Thursday I competed in my first ever official bike race. Yeah, I had previously participated in a few unofficially competitive organized rides but this was my first actual race: the 2006 Cat 4/5 Salisbury Criterium. If you're not familiar with competitive cycling, a Criterium is a loop course less than 1 mile long with 4-6 turns. At the beginner level, a "crit" usually lasts about 30 minutes so it's an exercise in cornering, sprinting, and suffering in close proximity to 30-80 other cyclists. In short, it's not at all like normal riding.

Although I felt like I could certainly keep up with the average Cat5 rider on a flat, straight course I was somewhat (read: very) apprehensive about the idea of a Criterium because of the technical nature of navigating the turns at 20 miles per hour in a group. I also knew that my legs would quickly grow tired of the inevitable sprint-out-of-the-corner that typifies criterium racing.

My wife and three kids came along to watch which added to the pressure--my six-year-old son who watched the Tour de France with me kept asking if I was going to be able to beat Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd--but at least I knew I'd have a ride home if I crashed out. We got there in time for me to register and do a few warmup laps, which was nice because it allowed me to at least get minimally comfortable with the high speed turns. I wasn't expecting the course to be hilly (since crits are typically on flat courses) but this one was surprisingly non-flat. I assumed this would work to my advantage because it would spread out the field and result in less traffic around the corners.

As I kept doing warmup laps, I was careful to keep an eye on the Start/Finish line to make sure I'd have a good spot but it didn't work out that way. At the end of my last warmup lap I was shocked to find that the number of riders had immediately balloned from noone in line to about 70. In other words, I was going to be lining up near the very end of the group. NOT A GOOD WAY TO START A CRIT.

There was not starting gun; the announcer simply yelled "go" and we were off. I got sorta caught off guard and by the time we rounded the first corner there were only 4 people behind me. NOT A GOOD WAY TO START A CRIT. In fact, it was essentially all over at that point and here's why: it's nearly impossible to catch up to the pack on your own. At speeds of 25+ mph the wind resistance is simply too great if you have to do all the work yourself.

By the sixth lap I had made up a little bit of ground but I had spent almost the entire time on my own which means that although I was passing a few people here and there I was actually losing ground on the main field. It was only a matter of time until I would be pulled (they don't let stragglers stay on the course) but I kept fighting until I started hearing an obnoxious tick-tick-tick-tick sound: the speed sensor magnet on my rear wheel somehow got knocked loose and was hitting the sensor arm every time the wheel went around. At that point I packed it in and headed to the start/finish line to meet my family and watch the end of the race.

By the time the race reached the 30 minute mark, everyone except the top 20 riders had been pulled (which made me feel better about my gear malfunction) and in the last two laps a two-man breakaway managed to stay off the front until finally one of the riders got a good jump on the other guy who he'd been working with and finished all by himself for a solo win. It was an exciting finish.

I learned a lot but mostly three things: start near the front, sprint right from the start to get in a paceline, and I need more practice.


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