If, during a conversation of eating and drinking while riding far or riding hard, somebody tells you about their favorite food and drink strategy by saying “There’s no way to keep the man with the hammer away like using…” then you can cut them off right there.
Because, if he comes for you, there’s no way to keep the man in the hammer away.
Yesterday, at the Pawling Mountain Road Race, one crucial teammate had to drop out early on with a mechanical, and for a great many miles in the middle of the race I had to do double duty as our team leader’s chaperone and as a break-chaser, attack-sucker, and general mark-the-frontsman. I had a reprieve when another teammate came to the front and counterattacked a move that I reeled in; unfortunately, the large climb came shortly thereafter. I made it up but slipped backwards in the group, got gapped, and had to fight my way back. We descended, I moved up, avoiding the brakes, and made sure to eat and drink. The second climb – long, shallow, and, when fresh, a big ring climb – was considerably harder this time around. We took the left hander after it, and began the Hurtenberg, the Muur de Pain, the steep, rough third climb of the circuit. I was at the back – panting, bobbing from side to side, adrift in a sea of lycra.
At this point, I heard somebody say to me, “Hot enough for you?” I looked over and behind me and saw a rider in a kit that I didn’t recognize. I grunted something and went back to concentrating on my pedal stroke, turning it over, turning it over, praying to the 25-tooth cog. “Hey buddy, I’m talking to you,” the rider said. I looked back again and saw that he wearing an antique three-piece suit. He had a waxed mustache and a salacious grin. He fiddled with a pocketwatch for a moment, eyeing me, watching my cadence, and then he produced a large hammer and, rearing back in his saddle, swung a cruel blow at me.
I watched the riders in front of me pull away. My legs were leaden and there were chills throughout my body. A brick was in my gut. I thought maybe when we crested I could chase back on during the descent, if there was anybody else around. I looked around. The man in the suit – the man with the hammer – had disappeared. Off hunting for his next victim, I suppose.
My good buddy Al is the King of NYC Roller Racing. At last night’s roller races, he beat (ahem, BEAT) Olympic-level and professional track racer Bobby Lea and got to the finals, where he had a lead on Andy Lakatosh (as in, Andy Lakatosh!) before, well, finishing third to Lakatosh and somebody wearing stars and stripes – all things considered, a good result.
The cool thing about roller racing is that it’s a rare way in cycling to go head-to-head with people who are way out of your league, but whom you still have a shot of beating. Rollers offer little resistance, which all but removes power and strength from the equation – it is, in essence, a test of pure leg speed and its secondary requirements – stability, souplesse, and concentration, the latter of which is incredibly important in convincing your body to sustain 150+ RPM for almost a minute.
Obviously, Al wouldn’t be able to take these beefcakes on the track. But on rollers? Well, if it takes some National Champ and a pro to send Al all the way down to 3rd place, well – there’s no one in New York City who can take him. And he got to throw down with some national calibre races, and hold his own. And that is pretty damn impressive.
In the spring, my good friend and riding buddy William made a daring statement: “We don’t race for the thrill of racing. It’s the feeling afterward. We get to feel so accomplished and badass.”
At the time, I didn’t agree with him. I love the thrill of road racing, the patience and stretching of being in a pack, wondering if I have the perspicacity to identify the crucial moment, the right break, or wondering if I have the legs to be one of the top wheels over the decisive climb. I love the chessgames of a breakaway. And I love the speed of track racing, condensing a whole race into maybe a few miles, tactics compressed, a shot of adrenaline, sprinting elbow to elbow around the banking. No missed shifts, no mechanicals – just: can I go fast enough at the right time?
I’m not sure, but I think I usually get off my bike with a smile on my face. William, on the other hand, has a distinctive look of death and pain when he dismounts after a race; red-faced with matted hair, gasping, making me wonder if this race or the next one will be when I hear him swear off racing forever (he has assured me this will not happen).
However, after a weekend full of cyclocross, courtesy of the Cycle-Smart International here in Northampton, Mass, I’m starting to come around on this notion that racing is far more terrible than the before and after times. I’m not much of a cyclocross racer – I’ve done a handful, and I like it, and each time I race I feel pretty good and decent but see where the skills of superior racers push them ahead of me. You can corner that tightly on grass? You can keep your rear wheel on the ground over those roots? How the hell do you get through all that sand? However, I was psyched about this weekend – a bunch of teammates and buddies were coming up to spend the weekend at my apartment, there was a case of beer in Aaron’s trunk, a dinner party planned, and Robot of Team Geekhouse had offered the hospitality of their tent. It promised to be a fantastic weekend.
The thrill was only shattered when I started racing. Elbows in the starting chute, backing off on the hole shot sprint, needing to make up positions, sprinting by people, fighting for the line on the hardpacked grass, bombing into corners, bombing down the descent, struggling to right the bike before we go into the tape, fighting through the sandpit, falling on the ride-up, falling on the run-up, riding over a fallen racer, heartrate through the roof from the gun to the finish line.
The first half of a cross race is all, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and the second half is a painful, dire, “No! No! No!” The leaders are going too fast, too hard. I caught all the guys in front of me, and now they’re pulling away again. This is my fast spot. It’s over too soon. This is my slow part of the course. It came back too soon. My teammate is in front of me? Bastard. Crap. That’s a gap I can’t close. That guy passed me in the same corner, again, and I’m going to have to sprint over the tracks to catch him.
And then, miserable at the end, in the big chainring for some godawful hubris-filled reason, pounding at the gear, closing the final gap to the people in front of me, the only race that matters after half of the race, struggling to hold the pace, the course deposits us onto the one hundred meters of paved finishing straight, and I get to sprint and feel the wind and wind-up of a road race, accelerating in the draft, low in the drops, coming up on the riders in front of me, throwing the bike at the line, making up a few precious spots in a few seconds.
And falling down under the trees beyond the finish line, taking minutes and minutes to stop heaving, gasping for water, wanting to burst and cry and shit and never do it again.
After some recovery, after water and an orange and putting pants on and ignoring the bike, the fun resumed: beers in the sun on a beautiful autumn day, sitting by the tape at the sharp descent, heckling the riders coming down: “Don’t brake! Get air! Go go go go go!” and spending the day with my sweet squeeze, a gaggle of excellent friends and teammates all in good spirits, and by the time I got home – belly full of pizza from a spot in downtown, legs exhausted, body exhausted, brain an incompetent slurry, there I was, registering for another one a few weeks from now; this time for two races in one day.
Photos courtesy of teammate Dave August
The weather has been ridiculous lately, with rain all month long, and so even though the sun is shyly, tenatively shining from behind thinning clouds I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that track racing will not be rained out, like it’s been for the past two weeks. Track racing is an hour of hard training, guaranteed. A good warm-up ride out to the track, a few races with regular hard efforts, sprints, and, if I’m lucky, a long race made up of constant suffering.
If you’re lucky, or if you live in New York City, you can have all of your training take place in racing. It’s a little bit more expensive, but a lot more fun. To that effect I’ve had a good week of training via racing: Saturday was a Prospect Park race in which I planned to spend the first half going off the front and the last half watching from the start/finish, saving my energy for Housatonic Hills on Sunday. That race tested the legs in the hills and found them sufficient for the task of staying with the front but not for whittling it down further – it came down to a sprint of about two dozen. A fast, technical end – a downhill false flat flying toward the start finish, a ninety degree corner, and a 300-meter sweeping uphill sprint. I took the corner third wheel but missed the wheel of the attack going up the inside, jumped into the wind with 200 meters to go, and watched, sprinting and cramping, as two more racers came around me, knocking me down to fourth. A fine finish nonetheless.
Thursday, I plan to ride up to Rockleigh, New Jersey, to give the crit there another whack. Last time I had a whopper of a sprint but poor position and only managed eighth. I’ve got an odd habit of either having the sprint or the positioning but never the two at the same time and I’m trying to rectify that – I wouldn’t mind a win. On Sunday comes one of the races that I’ve been enjoying more and more throughout the season – the Cadence Cup Series at Prospect Park. My club has been showing out in full force for these, bouyed by some good results early on and the very compelling promise of increasingly adept teamwork. In the second race we put our teammate Yack into the Green Jersey for sprinter’s points, and in the third and fourth we’ve kept him there. While I’m generally on the lookout for results I know it’s time to lay it down to keep Yack wearing that jersey, and I’ll be a part of our large, guns-to-a-knife-fight leadout train for him.
Now that, my select and loyal readers, is exciting.
Leading up to Housatonic Hills I was excited but nervous. Could I do well? I should improve on my results from my last major road race, and if I don’t it’s an opportunity wasted. Fourth is good and I’m pleased but I saw second place tantalizingly close (first place was taken with a commanding sprint from a BVF rider).
But with the prospect of laying it down directly for a teammate the nervousness of letting myself down dissipates, and it’s not replaced by nervousness about letting somebody else down. Why exactly I can’t say – maybe because it’s all still pretty new to me.
Sunday – I can’t wait. And speaking of excitement for things to come, good things are in the works.
photo above by Marcia Van Wagner.
A blog post about intentional contact while racing led to comments about other ways to effectively communicate in a pack, and Aki mentioned something that I’ve realized for a little while: bikers can be vulnerable. He wrote:
I stopped yelling for a while, but I do it if it’s a critical point and no one’s moving. Usually someone does because the cry is enough to put them over the “should I go or should I stay” cusp.
A field can be so large and the dynamics of the pack can confuse a racer; people trying to make sense of a race situation through the haze of speed, fatigue, efforts, and recovery can be manipulated. Many people just feel better about doing something when they’re told to – when a command to do something resonates with their inkling that something must be done, it overrides their deer-in-the-headlights instinct toward inaction. People are susceptible to suggestion. “Close that gap!” “Go go go go!” Oh, I’m supposed to go now! That guy said it, so everybody must know it, so it must be true!
A track racing buddy of mine pushes a large gear and fairly regularly makes strong, late accelerations, going off the front with around two laps to go. They are exciting moves that don’t usually stick, but do shake things up a lot. Knowing his tendency for this, I’ve been able to use him to my advantage a few times. “Wind it up!” I’ll say at the right point, calling his name and hopping on his wheel. I get a generous draft from his tall frame as he runs the field ragged once he gets his 49/14 turning.
Beyond manipulating my fellow racers, I find vocalization to be helpful communication. At one of the first track meets I went to, one of the older racers was talky on the banking and I found it to be a good way to ground myself in a tight pack – I know where Luke is, because he is telling me where he is. So I do it, too: “Hup hup hup” if I’m moving up and want somebody to know that I’m on their hip; or, “inside, inside, inside.” It doesn’t really matter what I’m saying, just having some volume so that people don’t assume it’s safe to move off their line to follow another wheel forward.
Maybe this would be obsolete in a more advanced field than Category 4, but I approach packs full of strangers as dangerous until proven otherwise, and will take all precautions to make my location known. I’ve heard people express the sentiment that talkers are bothersome. I don’t care. I’m a talker. Chatting with a teammate on the way back from a Watermelon Crit, he told me that another member of the club had identified me as “that small guy who couldn’t stop talking” while racing.
I laughed. Right on the money.
I spent a weekend in Connecticut and used the opportunity to race criteriums in Plainville and Bethel. I needed just a few more races before I upgrade, and I chose Plainville based largely on having heard about it from Sprinter Della Casa‘s blog and Bethel from its reputation in NYC as a good training crit. After racing both, I highly recommend each for some good weekend racing.
Plainville is an excellent course – fast and flat, D-shaped with two ninety degree turns separated by the home stretch and by a long, fast, winding part. The final turn was just before the 200m mark. The combined 4/5 category meant that the race was long enough to be satisfying (45 minutes plus 5 laps), and I found the racers and organizers, volunteers, and marshalls to be really congenial. I got there with enough time for a few warm-up laps before being called to the line, and when the race started I found that the quality of racing was pretty high. A few riders whom I wanted to be away from but nothing terrible, and some people who had that quiet confidence around them.
I separated the race into sections and executed my plan very well. I sat in and got a feel for it. Then I tested things out as an opportunist, putting myself in a good two-person break for several laps until we were decisively reeled in. Then, I sat in and recovered, and figured out what positioning I would need for the sprint (recovery was aided by an unfortunate 6+ rider stack-up on the backstretch; the officials stopped the race a few laps after as an ambulance needed to attend to one rider still down. Here’s hoping that everyone is not too bad off and riding again soon). And then I played my position very well, putting myself where I thought I needed to be. I saw an acceleration moving up the inside on the backstretch, jumped, got myself to be the third wheel, took the corner at 31mph and sprinted. I got into a rider’s draft and threw my bike at the line to take 2nd! I even won cash, which went right into lunch for me, my traveling buddy, our helpful friend, and our two hosts for the night. Burritos – my favorite post race food.
My traveling partner and I rolled up to Bethel in barely enough time to sign in and get to the line. I was able to take one (1) warmup lap: ninety degree turn, sweeping gentle downhill, wicked headwinds on the back stretch, and a hill that’s long and steep enough to change things. Sand on the course but nowhere particularly dangerous. The cat 5 race was only 12 laps and I figured I’d just patrol the front. The front turned out to be the eventual winner, a big young guy who liked to sit at the front and hammer. Had he attacked he could have done some damage. He also telegraphed everything he was about to do, so coming up to the finish line I jumped right before he did, opened up a huge gap, and rolled over the line first. Except I had made a mistake: there was the official, ringing the bell. One to go – how did I mess that one up? I sat up, got a wheel, and tried to chill out. I did but was tired enough that I couldn’t sprint the way I would have liked, and came in 3rd.
Good results feel good, but I’m happier about a few other things: I made plans for the races and I stuck to them; I read the races well, and I read the other racers well. But on the top of the list is that I just submitted for an upgrade to Cat 4. I’m also just happy that a weekend of traveling and racing worked out very well – I had a great time in Connecticut, hanging out with friends, enjoying the first weekend of Spring weather immensely. And we hit up some races that I do not hesitate to recommend broadly and widely (in fact, I just emailed my team doing so!). So, if you’re within whatever you consider to be worthwhile driving distance of either Plainville or Bethel I recommend that you get out to them. The people are friendly and the courses are good.
I was going to write a post about track bike orthodoxy and why it’s silly, using my own bike as an example. This morning I put cyclocross tires on it. When I woke up around 6 AM it was snowing heavily and the street in front of my apartment barely had any tire tracks in it. Cyclocross tires, I thought, would be useful for a day of working in those conditions. At 10 AM, a few hours after mounting cyclocross tires on that trusty workhorse, I looked out the window again. Freezing rain. Slush as far as the eye could see, and not enough time to put slicks back on before I had to leave for work. Damn.
There is nothing worse than 33 degrees and raining, especially if it’s combined with thick slush all over the roads. Plastic bags over my socks kept my soggy shoes from freezing my toes off – barely. A reminder from your friendly local bicycle delivery person: tipping 10% is a good start. Increase with generosity for longer distances, worse weather, walk-ups, and any additional hassles, complications, or waiting. Four or five additional bucks means more to the bike delivery person than it does the person warm in their apartment.
Anyway, since the weather was miserable, upon coming home from work I rode rollers for a little over an hour. Speaking of rollers: last night’s roller races (a fundraiser for Recycle-A-Bicycle and featuring Bike Works’ fabulous Competition Rollers) saw my buddy and teammate Al defeat this guy, who has a couple of noteworthy palmares. A velodrome rematch will have to wait until Al upgrades (a few times).
Good job, Al!