Jun 13, 2011

Crit racing weekend: Joe Mendes and Taleo race reports

I think this weekend will go down in my racing history as the weekend I started enjoying racing criteriums. I didn’t race any last year in an effort of avoiding crashes – something I found to be a common excuse/reason among cyclists who don’t do them. When this season rolled around, I was intent on also avoiding all but a couple of crits, but after doing a few, I found out that they weren’t really as bad as I thought, though I can’t say that I was enjoying them as much as I’ve enjoyed racing. All of that changed this weekend. I can’t say that I now like crits more than road races, in fact that’s probably not the case, but what I can say with certainty is that I now like them a lot.

This weekend I raced two courses that couldn’t be any more different. The Joe Mendes crit on Saturday was pancake flat, with perfect road surface and two wide sweeping turns, which in essence made it a two corner crit. A bit of banking and smoothing out the corners and it could have been a track race.

The Taleo crit on Sunday was the complete opposite. There were eight 90 degree turns, about 50ft of elevation gain per lap and potholes on the road with drainage ditches in the turns. (Click on the map below for the detailed map. For some reason it appears as a kite figure when it was really a figure 8)

The differences in the courses, however, didn’t stop me from enjoying both courses very much. Here’s how it all went down.

Joseph Mendes Criterium

The E4 field was the first to the line on the day at 8:00a.m., and it was really cold for June, and very windy as well, with the wind changing directions every five minutes, or so it seemed. I started in the last third of the field and slowly was making my way up to the front. I had no teammates in the race, no one to work for, nor anyone working for me, so there was really no urgency for me to be in the wind early in the race.

The bell rang for the first preme at about 10 minutes into the race and the acceleration strung the field out a bit, and of course, after the preme winner crossed the line, like an accordion, the field folded in, and I effortlessly found myself in the top third where I was intent on staying for the remainder of the race. About 10 minutes later, another preme bell rang and once again the field did the same routine. This time I found myself third or fourth wheel off the front.

With about seven laps to go, a Tri-Valley guy went into a break and I decided, for whatever reason, that I was going to bridge up to him and we got a gap. Once I saw the gap was established, I got to the front and took a pull. When the time came for me to take the second pull, I noticed that I was gapping my breakaway partner, so I eased off to make sure we were both together. We were off the front for maybe two or three laps, I don’t recall, but we never got much time on the field and I recall that with four laps to go it was back together.

After rolling back into the field, I had to work very hard to stay in the top five spots as the guys with much fresher legs (read: those who didn’t work very hard in an ill-fated break) were now coming to the front and putting in attacks. I did my best to both stay near the front and out of the wind. Fast forward to bell lap.

I’m sitting third wheel going into the second corner (i.e., the first of two 90 degree turns) and all of a sudden the pace picks up and I’m swarmed with other riders. I did my best to hang on to the tail end of that group, but the legs had nothing in them to contest the sprint or to move up places before hitting the final corner. I ended up 26th out of about 45 riders.

The result wasn’t anything special, but a lot of lessons were learned. I felt more comfortable than ever before moving around in a crit field – I would say I felt almost as comfortable as I do in a road race – and the high speed certainly made it exciting. Especially when Oscar from Dolce Vita decided to strum my rear spokes with his wheel, but we both handled that well – so no harm no foul.

Taleo Criterium

It was another early start, but with the sun shining brightly, it was much warmer than the day before. We came to the line and I lined up in the front row. Because the course was so technical, the officials let us take a neutral lap before starting us off. As I was taking the neutral lap, I knew this was going to be a rollercoaster of a crit, and it didn’t disappoint.

The course starts climbing gradually from the start line, then there is a left hand turn into a drainage ditch and the climb continues for maybe another 50 yards, followed by a short downhill into a right-hander and another uphill followed by another right onto flat road. Then a right going into a down hill, followed by a left into a steeper downhill and another right into a ditch coming in at probably over 30mph. Then the course runs flat for a couple blocks and the final two right-handers are a gradual uphill into the finish.

The whistle blows and we’re off. I literally felt as if I was on a horse and someone just branded it, as the first lap was at a blistering pace right from the start and my legs were immediately in pain going up the hill for the first time, even after a good warmup. My initial thought was, “what the hell is this?!?” The next thought was, “This is an E4 field, this can’t possibly be sustainable.” I was right, as by the end of lap two, the pace had subsided and while the field was nearly always strung out because of the challenging and technical nature of the course, I really didn’t have any issues with the pace.

I made sure to stay up in the front half of the field and stay out of the wind. The plan was to sit in, be patient, start moving up with five laps to go and see what I could do in the sprint. About half way to two-thirds through the race, a group of four riders broke away and got about 12 seconds on the field. I figured that there is no way this was going to stay away (it never does in E4, right?), so I waited until someone would start chasing, but no one did. A team (which shall remain nameless because I have come to learn that more people read this drivel than I originally imagined) had eight racers in the field and not only didn’t get anyone in the break, but also didn’t do any chasing. WTF?

Maybe I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about here, but I think if your team is one-fifth of the race field, you should put someone on the podium. Someone needed to burn their matches to give their teammates a chance. Someone could have blocked in corners to make sure a teammate was up in the top three going into the final corner, but alas.

With about three to go, as I was moving up the field, I somehow ended up on the nose, but after one hard pull, quickly pulled off – though not as quickly as I would have liked because getting anyone in that field to do any work to bring back the break was not easy. I know why the guy behind me didn’t help, he had a teammate in the break, but not sure what the rest of the field was thinking. On the bell lap, I made a hard effort up the first part of the hill and was sitting in the top five or six spots, but going into the final corner I was cut off and had to lose a few spaces. I had enough in me for a good kick, but sprinting out of a really bad position only gets you so much.

I ended up 14th, or 10th in the field – depending on how you look at it. The day before, I got into a break and paid for it. This time around, I refused to go into a break and also paid for it. It’s a gamble, but with the info I had and the composition of the field, I think I made the right decision at the time. Hindsight is of no use here.

The technical nature and challenge of this course made it a lot of fun. I hope they keep the course the same (some road improvements wouldn’t hurt though) and I’ll definitely put it on my calendar for next year.  

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