By Jerry Jacobs, 545 Velo and CRW Member
Ogden, Utah; USA Cycling Masters Nationals Criterium Championship, Masters 55+, September 6th, 2014
I guess it was normal to be feeling some trepidation as I circled in the warm-up area before my start. Fifty-six years old, and at my very first National Championship. The weather was perfect and the impressive peaks of the Wasatch Range were visible from the downtown of Ogden, Utah. There was Mark Hoffenberg (Team Velosport- CA), defending national champion, looking very strong. I had come a long way from my first CRW group rides and regional races ten years ago. I've completed roughly 200 races and made steady and consistent progress in my racing. I'm excited to find out if I have the game to compete at this level.
Time to concentrate on the task at hand. I had done my homework and gathered as much intelligence about the race as possible from a number of the guys I'd met over the past few days. I’d made a number of new cycling friends from around the country, and they were more than willing to share past experiences and intelligence about the upcoming race. Rumor had it that two of the top California-based teams were planning to take the race out super-hard because they wanted to drop a few of the pure sprinters early. I'd need a good warm-up to be prepared to go match from the gun.
My first mistake of the day was not appreciating how race officials were organizing the line-up at the start. I entered the closed-course in the middle. Officials said we could ride a free lap to the start corral. That sounded like a reasonable idea since I could focus on my line and visualize where I wanted to be in the early laps of the race. As I rounded the final turn, I noticed that the start corral was already packed with most of the 66-rider field. Ugh! Starting a race at this level in the back row was not part of the plan. Race officials went over pre-race instructions and positioned several of the cycling legends on the front row. We'd be racing for 50 minutes over a 1-mile criterium course. There are 8 turns within the mile, 6 to the right and 2 to the left for good measure, with a short and relatively steep hill after the start/finish straightaway. Dropped riders would be pulled if in danger of getting lapped (I certainly did not want that).
As anticipated, the pace was aggressive from the gun. Our 66-rider field was strung out single-file in a hurry, a sure sign that we were pressing it. My only play on these first few laps was in holding my position, staying tight to the wheel in front of me, and finding the fastest and cleanest line out of each corner. I had to conserve every watt of power that I could, hope that the field would not split in these early laps, and then start moving my way forward as the pace relaxed at any point. I was able to settle in quickly and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was not fighting hard to hold position. I was able to find fast, clean lines coming out of the corners. The bike handling around me was pretty good. I was able to be relaxed at speed in traffic, and not allow any gaps to open that I had to use effort to close. Progress, indeed.
Five laps into the race I looked down at my Garmin: 26.4 mph average speed! These guys may be old (over 55), but they can still drill it, and many train harder now than they did as younger elite riders. Race officials had us clocked on the speed gun on the start/finish straight away at around 30 mph each lap. I could hear the announcers telling the spectators that the pace was really fast, and I could vaguely pick out my wife and father in the crowd as we whizzed by. Now it was time to start moving up. Crits normally start consolidating after those early, brutally fast laps, and if you are alert and savvy, there are usually opportunities to advance one's position with minimal effort. There is usually a series of hard attacks at this point in the race as riders attempt to break away. I had to be watching for this and be ready to dig deep.
A hard attack died on lap 7, and I could see the front guys getting tactical and spread five across, a perfect spot to advance my position. Just as soon as I had moved up maybe ten spots, the hammer came down. We were back to full throttle, single file. That attack relented, and it was time to move up expending the least energy possible. I found a nice gap on the right side, held my speed, and zipped past a bunch of guys. I was finally in the front 20. Counterintuitively, it takes a lot less effort to ride at the front of a race than at the back. The best guys at the front are all drilling it through the corners and taking the cleanest, fastest line. There is no touching of brakes or bunching. My racing buddies and I refer to the back half of the race as the "stupid zone," for good reason. Everything seems, and is, harder—from bunching in the corners to needing to sprint out of every turn, and that gets old in a hurry. Also, the guys in the back are generally hanging on by a thread and at the highest risk of crashing. Nothing really good happens at the back of the peloton.
Eleven laps to go. I had fought hard for good position. Many of the top guys were around me. I was still feeling quite strong and my legs still felt like they had plenty of punch left. All those quad-burning, variable-power training sessions that Coach Todd Scheske had put me through were paying dividends. I had not spent too much time pressing my limits and had not burned many matches moving up. Whatever happened from this point onward, at least I had hung with the field and had not been dropped early, especially with my family members watching. I felt pretty proud of this. I was now focused on figuring out how I could win this thing, and finding the best pilot fish (fastest wheel) that I could for the final laps. I figured that I wouldn't be dropped, so it's all gravy at this point. I could sense a big attack unfolding: a couple of the top guys were out of the saddle, drilling it. This one looked like the real deal, and I had to jump on it quickly, find a good wheel, and stay tight. I was pressed to my limits here and digging deep. I could tell that this attack was hard enough and late enough in the race that guys were getting spit out of the back of the field. I suspected that maybe only half the field was intact at the front, but the pace was too fast to look back or even consider what was behind me.
Seven laps to go (maybe 18 minutes of racing), and it started to get tactical again. I still felt surprisingly fresh. I had been working hard over the past many weeks on sprint and finishing speed. I've taken some of the best Masters to the line in a few big races, such as a 5th at the super-competitive Killington Stage Race (Stage 1). So the closer I am to the finish, the better. It's time to start mentally preparing for the final laps and put myself into position for a big finish. It's "self-talk time." I've worked hard for this. It's going to be a long winter of wondering, "What could have been?" and I want to put every fiber of effort into the finish. I tell myself to give it everything that I have and leave nothing in the bag!
Just as we passed the start/finish line, the guy in front of me slammed into a manhole cover, wobbled for a split second, and hooked the handle bars of the rider next to him. They went sideways. I was inches off their wheel with no place to go… BANG!! On the ground and dazed, I did what any serious bike racer would do—check the bike. Amazingly, the bike looked mostly unbroken, with a few scrapes on the bar tape, nothing too serious. Then it was time to check out me. I handed my bike to race officials and looked for my wife and father, in case they saw the crash and were worried that I was hurt. I found them and headed for the medical tent. Doctors asked me the obligatory questions—do I know where I am, what day is it, have I blacked out. I answered these questions satisfactorily. Fortunately, no concussion. I did have quite a few scrapes, a shredded cycling kit, and significant bleeding on my left index finger. The Doc concluded that the scrapes were relatively moderate road rash. The finger had a pretty deep gash, but since no tendons were severed, they decided to clean out the cut and put in three stitches, using local anesthesia. This makes me whimper, and here I thought I was some kind of tough bike racer!
My race may have ended badly, but I took a lot of positives away from the experience. I now know that I can compete at this level. I was comfortable with my bike-handling skills, and I rode a smart race. The experience of being at a national championship event was just awesome. I'm already dreaming about next year’s national championship.