Last year, I was surprised by people who thought that Tyler Farrar was the next sprint sensation. He seemed to me to be Mister Fifth Place, Mister Always-The-Bridesmaid, a sprint contender but not a sprint dominator. Destined to play second fiddle.
Even when he won Scheldeprijs this spring, I shrugged. It’s just Scheldeprijs. People were tuning up for Roubaix. Then he came in 5th place at the Ronde, and suddenly, “Mister Fifth Place” seemed a little bit more impressive.
What turned me into a Farrar fan was the drama surrounding Stage 11 of the Tour de France this year. Mark Cavendish’s leadout man, Mark Renshaw, has been doing a pretty impressive job of putting Cav at the right spot to win stages. On Stage 11, this involved headbutting Farrar’s leadout man Julian Dean 3 times and then, after Cav launched, “closing the door” on Farrar by drifting over a lane on the road so that Farrar couldn’t pass. Farrar had to sit up, pause, and wait to sprint – he still got 3rd. Renshaw was disqualified – not from the stage, not relegated due to his sprint, but booted from the whole Tour. A bummer: I like watching him in action.
What got me was Farrar’s immediate reaction – still on the bike, between the finish line and the team bus. He is mature, articulate, and surprisingly even-keeled. He honors his opponents – “Cav can win if they ride a clean sprint” – and criticizes them without lambasting them. Without being a petulant hothead about it.
Basically, he’s not an arse.
With Renshaw sent packing, I think the likelihood of continued Cavendish Sprint Dominance is diminished. Farrar’s looking fast – he took 3rd on Stage 11 when he was put into the barriers and had to stop his sprint and re-accelerate. I think we might see him win a stage. It would be nice to see. And it would be nice comeuppance after a sprint that has sprinting heads of state in disagreement.
Remember during this year’s Tour de France, when Armstrong jumped away from the dwindling group of B-climbers and bridged up to that yellow jersey group? All across the internet I saw a few eyebrows go up, questioning Armstrong’s move as “chasing down his teammates.” This reminded me of a moment at Union Vale, when I launched an attack, bridged up to another rider, and together we worked very hard to bridge up to a two-man break that had been out of sight. One of those to whom we eventually bridged was a teammate. His companion turned to me and said, “Kissena, why’d you chase your own rider down?” I looked behind me. The peloton was out of sight. “That’s a bridge, not a chase.”
Now, I’m careful not to go overboard with comparisons to pros, because we’re not comparable. Our strengths and abilities are so incomparable that the tactics, though similar, are by no means the same. However: bridging is not chasing. Bridging is bringing another motivated rider to a threatening breakaway, and adding motivation to the breakaway.
Bridging is an important tactic that I don’t see enough of in Cat 4 racing. I see attacks and I see chases. Attacks, of course, force the pace, hit the field a bit, and test the attacker’s ability to gain a lead and hold it. The chase says, “No!” A chase is great if there are primes or points on the line, or if you don’t like the composition of the break, or if your sprinter is the shiznitabam. But if you don’t have a reason for it, chasing tows people who aren’t contributing to the making-things-happen part of the race.
And screw those dudes.
Next time, don’t chase. Bridge. Make everybody work. See what can happen. Chances are good that you’re not one of the four guys in the field who could win in a sprint. Why not try to bridge up and be in a breakaway that sticks? Can we all agree that the best chances that most of us have of winning are in breakaways, and we should all try to make them happen? That we have to make the race hard, that we have to go hard, and that it’s more fun like that anyway?
And, for God’s sake, if I have just bridged up to you – in a road race, track race, whatever – do not immediately swing off and expect me to “pull through.” That is just ridiculous. Give a fellah a second to recover, okay?
Stage 14 of the Tour was incredible to watch – well, the last 20k, which I caught after coffee and muffins – and provides plenty of fodder for us armchair jerks. Everybody’s favorite hardworking nice guy pro, George Hincapie, was the virtual yellow jersey being the best-placed rider in a break of 12. He needed to finish a little over five minutes ahead of the peloton to grab the yellow. The break of 12, with a big gap on the peloton, started attacking each other around 14k to go, and Sergie Ivanov counterattacked the son of Stephen Roche (who provides one of my favorite Tour stories) and opened a gap on the other members of the break, who looked at each other wondering who would chase. Ivanov won after a spectacular ride, and Hincapie rolled in several seconds afterward.
Garmin, the team that Hincapie’s teammate Cavendish has repeatedly badmouthed, took over pacemaking at the front from a tired yellow-defending AG2R. There was the fuss during the Giro d’Italia about how Cav thought Garmin’s focus on the TTT was disrespectful to the race. Interesting, coming from somebody who’s a part of a team that doesn’t have GC contenders for major stage races and instead seeks to just win individual stages. Isn’t that the same thing?
So, with Garmin at the front driving a pace, the peloton is brought under the red kite and after a messy little low-speed sprint, with Cavendish trying to win but trying to do so as late as possible, Hincapie winds up five seconds outside of the yellow jersey. Cavendish, meanwhile, is relegated for his sprint tactics against Thor Hushovd. From the video, he half puts Thor into the barrier; the barrier line also moves inward and Cavendish doesn’t really chop over very far.
Practically before any reporter can jam a microphone into anybody’s face, Twitter lights up about all of this. The most interesting was from Robbie McEwen, who said that sprinting tactically walks a very fine line, and “if Cav hadn’t [looked over his shoulder at Thor], he wouldn’t been DQ’d.” He also points out that it’s easy to armchair quarterback like this, but I’d lean toward saying that he knows what he’s talking about, having won the Green jersey a few times as well as lost it due to a relegation.
Meanwhile on Twitter, Lance says that Astana didn’t close the gap, Vaughters says his team wasn’t denying Hinc the yellow in retaliation for this feud between two American cycling teams (with Columbia usually coming out on top; Garmins wins in this years Grand Tours have been limited), Bruyneel raises his eyebrows at Vaughter’s defense, and Vaughters’ rider Wiggins feels sorry for Hincapie while defending himself, saying that he doesn’t make the decisions on the road.
Both buzz-inducing moves – Garmin taking the necessary seconds from Hinc and denying him the yellow and Cavendish’s half-chop of Hushovd – could go either way, in my opinion. Cavendish’s move was far from flagrant, and yeah, Garmin’s nibbling at the seconds is all part of racing, petty as it may appear to be.
But the real question is, when the hell did Twitter become the gossip-y medium of choice for the pro peloton?
And now it’s time for the mountains.
We had numbers in this race, and I knew who to mark in the event that a leadout train failed. I stayed sheltered, and felt strong. I’ve been sprinting well. I can do this. I was in position. Brooklyn Velo Force had a strong train going up; our train was running strong at the front. Westwood Velo moved up and things got chaotic, dense, elbows bumping and everybody struggling to hold position and suddenly it wasn’t fast enough. Our train fell apart. The front got jammed up and was very tight.
Suddenly BVF’s two sprinters were on the front with 500 meters to go, and I had some daylight to the right. So I jumped, went across the road, hard, and tried to hold it. Opened a gap. Peeked under my armpit. Watched it start to close. Saw a guy come up on my right hip. The line was right there. Then more guys.
I was swallowed twenty meters from the line.
Maybe I salvaged a top ten. I came close to winning. Sigh. There’s always next time.
I think it was a good move. Our train had started to disintegrate in the ragged, aggressive front. BVF’s sprinter wasn’t going to jump from that far out. I felt strong; the pace had slowed. It was worth a shot. The opportunity was there and I took it. What should I do next time?
I think I should be a little more patient; another hundred feet down the road, if that kept up, and I could have jumped clear to hold it. Maybe. If somebody else hadn’t taken initiative by then. Maybe they started sprinting, saw me dangling out there, and laughed.
I’m glad I tried it. Sitting in and waiting for a possible sprint victory is tough – it’s tough with ringers like Lombardi and Aracena in the field, it’s tough on the psyche, the notion that I spent twentyfive bucks to risk my bike and my neck cruising around Prospect Park for over an hour so I can race for a minute and a half.
I’d rather upgrade on points than on top ten finishes, and to do that I’m going to have to take risks. So I should try it. Attack. More often. Go ahead. I think about a guy who races out at the velodrome, Tadeusz Marszalek. He’s a great racer to watch because he attacks constantly. I’d rather race like him, not try to sit pretty and then hope that by some accident of registration I’m the best sprinter in the field. Because I’m not.
The right attack might get me that podium. Not this time, though.
Two teammates went down in the madness of the final moments before the sprint uncorked in earnest. Shoulder injuries. Kerry and Todd, best wishes for your rapid recovery.
I was on my leadout man’s wheel, just to the left because the wind was coming from the right. We were flying and I was feeling good. He was spinning in a tiny gear, hands on the tops, and he had just jumped around the last remaining person. I hazarded a look behind me. Strung out. Gaps everywhere. Man, we were flying. “More!” I yelled. Was he going to upshift or just pull me along at 180 rpm? I hit the 200m line, the old finish line, and jumped around my leadout man. Plenty of pavement. Big jump, one click down in the lever, everything is quiet, just pavement.
I check that sliver of daylight under my armpit. I’ve got meters. It feels like miles. At the end of a sprint I start to shake, trying to extract the last bits of energy from my body, pulling at the bars. I did that and rolled across the line, clear by lengths.
It felt awesome even though an 8-man break had escaped three miles earlier and rolled through the line to gobble up placings; maybe fewer people seriously contested the sprint because of that. No matter. I feel good. I soon learned that my teammates got 2nd and 6th – a good day for the team. On NY Velocity, the one-stop shop for catty, anonymous comments about other bike racers, the team earned the following: “Kissena somehow controlled the race today. They didn’t do any work at all to bring the break back, just sitting on the front slowing things down and letting the Giant guy do all the work.” Naturally. It’s poor form to do work to bring a break back when a quarter of the riders in the break are your teammates.
The Twilight Series at the track began with some trepidation about Sunday’s crashes late in the Omnium, and a few people hinting that maybe they weren’t quite recovered from the weekend. The fields were fairly well attended – the women’s field was larger than the small 1/2/3 field – but everything looked sparse compared to the huge crowds of Opening Weekend.
Dan, Al, and I had a quick conversation before the racing began. Al’s my regular teammate; Dan is a 3 on the road and while he’s rarely the fastest guy, he’s one of the smartest. When the whistle blew on our scratch race Dan went to the front to send the pace through the roof. Our main goal was to disrupt the ability of two Sanchez riders, Colin Prensky and Chad Marion, from just riding away with the race. One is a cat 2 on the road and another is well on his way to cat 2, so the most realistic hope was that we prevent them from dominating, and make them work and hurt for it. I don’t remember much from the race except patrolling the front out of necessity – if I dropped back a few wheels it would be entirely possible that I wouldn’t be able to get up there. Gabe was in the right place at the right time to land me on Colin’s wheel with 300 meters to go, but Chad came around me and for the effort the best that Kissena managed to do against two Sanchez riders was 3rd place. But we made them work for it.
The next race was a tempo: points are awarded each lap for the top two finishers (2 and 1 point, respectively). That means a fast race, and I jumped hard at the whistle and just barely held it to take points on the first lap as two riders drew even on my right. I had hoped to settle in to a groove after that first effort, but the effort was too big and when the field passed me, single file, it was going too fast for me to join on. Five laps later I was nearly bridging up to Al and Dan who were chasing the Sanchez riders, who in turn had taken 1 and 2 in each lap since the first; the bell rang, indicating the last lap, and I soft-pedaled through the finish. In hindsight what I did was a tactically smart response to two very strong riders in a very demanding race, and it was good enough for third place, but being out of contention for the rest of the race still feels like I only raced for one lap.
The points race was a highlight. We turned the pace up to 11 immediately again and by the time we were ready for the first sprint the only people able to turn the pace high enough were the two Sanchez riders, Dan, and myself. I settled for fourth and closed the gap to Chad, and we settled into a rhythm of keeping our lead over the field. The next sprint wasn’t too aggressive, since we were all guaranteed points, but I was second wheel so tried to sneak up on Chad, who accelerated when Colin warned him with 50 meters to go. The third sprint, I am really proud of. With 200 meters to go I drew even with Chad, who was on Colin’s wheel, and sprinted from his hip, boxing him in behind Colin. It was a precision maneuver, keeping the space between us close around Kissena’s bumpy turn 4, and for a moment I was afraid I had opened the door wide enough for him to try to slip through. Colin was sprinting conservatively, not realizing the situation his teammate was in, and though I couldn’t threaten him I kept Chad contained and took 2nd place in the sprint. Brains over brawn that time.
It was good enough for 3rd in the omnium, and I qualified for the feature race of the night (along with my two teammates and the two Sanchez riders), racing against the fairly small 1/2/3 field. Dan sent the pace through the roof at the whistle and he and I were at the front to block when Al launched himself into a quarter-lap gap to take the first sprint uncontested (the racing paused while track cheerleader, director, and all-around great guy John Campo recovered from a crash caused by a broken seatpost); when he was reeled in, Dan launched an attack and I sat on the wheel of a Global Locate rider danging between the pack and Dan. When he was reeled in I didn’t have the juice to attack but I feinted, which got a GL rider’s nose in the wind and set us up for a few remaining points in the final sprint.
Al, Dan, and I raced together very intuitively and it paid off. We placed 3-4-5 in the omnium and raced Al into first place in the featured Points Race. While nervously succumbing to the spine-shaking coughs known as track hack, I realized that track racing will make me faster. I spent the night alternatively accelerating a 90″ gear, spinning it out, and sprinting on it. I had spent the day leading up to the race busy, working hard, and riding a lot, and had second thoughts about going out to race, but I’m very glad that I did.
For a few more road races, I’ll be racing in the Cat 5’s. I talk a big game, like I know what I’m talking about, but that’s mostly because I’m a nerd rather than somebody who’s done a lot of racing. Writing this blog is a way to articulate my own learning process.
One of the things I’ve been learning over and over again this winter is that a relaxed upper body goes a long way toward improving one’s cycling. I realized, several weeks ago when I was out on the first long ride in nice weather of the late winter, that my torso and arms were a lot more relaxed while riding. I attribute it to spending time riding on rollers this winter. They force you to relax and let the bike do it’s thing. If you try to manhandle it, you’ll overcompensate in a snap and ride yourself right off the front roller, into the doorframe, chair, or whatever you are using for support.
Bikes are really great at handling themselves. The way the steering works is really remarkable, taking the fork rake, head tube angle, and lean of the bike into account in a fine equilibrium that really does most of the work for you. I learned, by riding on some terrible urban terrain (loose cobblestones, ruts, and poor asphalt) that the bike can control itself if you take a backseat role. Literally: push your weight back on the saddle, over the rear wheel, and focus on transmitting power to the pedals. Lighten your grip on the bars and let your upper body get loose. The front end will perform its remarkable feat of self-correction.
I put this skill to good use in November’s Staten CX race in a section full of off-camber turns, exposed roots, ruts, and rocks. I sat back and powered through, surprising one rider who seemed to gingerly work a line through the mess – as I plowed through he looked up and asked, “How’d you do that?” Poor bike handling in part stems from tension or overcontrol of the bike, and something that I realized in yesterday’s Cadence Cup Prospect Park Series (Cat 5 field, remember) is that staying relaxed in a tight pack when there is some oddball behavior around you (riders jamming themselves left to right in their eagerness, and moving unpredictably to capriciously go after a new wheel) – particularly at high speeds – may very well make the difference between staying upright and taking a tumble.
And, though I’m going to largely avoid full-blown race reports, the first race of the season went well. A teammate and I attacked on the second lap, hard, at the top of the “hill.” We were away for only about a mile before the pack, still fresh, reeled us in. A lap later, the pace was very high, and then dropped quite suddenly when a lone rider went up the road and nobody was able to respond anymore. I was staying sheltered, twenty wheels back, at that point, still recovering. The rider gained significant time. The pace picked up well on the last half of the last lap, on a fast section of road. There were a few edgy moments at 34mph in a pack tighter than it needed to be, as a lot of people tried to get to the front. But when the terrain stopped providing the speed, the front didn’t want to take over and the pace slowed down to maybe 24mph instead of ramping up the speed for a field sprint. So I attacked, hard, with about 800 meters to go. I opened a big gap and went cross-eyed trying to hold my speed and hold off the inevitable field sprint. And I did, mostly. The lead sprinter got me at the line; I threw my bike to prevent the second from doing so, too, and got 3rd place.
Next up: two crits in Connecticut next weekend. I’m taking it easy today, for fun rather than out of a need to recover, and will go for a long hard ride tomorrow.