Monday, May 31, 2010

Racing - 2010 Tour of Somerville

After the Bethel Spring Series my season always seems to stutter a bit. A lot of the classic May crits are gone, or, if not gone (I haven't checked), too far away. Scotch Plains, Point Pleasant, Freehold, Nutley, these were the ultra-fast crits where I'd basically get a motorpacing workout before heading for a much more reasonable crits in Connecticut or Rhode Island.

With some good form at Bethel, I decided to try the Mystic Velo Crit at Ninigret Park. Usually I skip Ninigret Park races because, frankly, I get shelled there all the time. A four lap race is a triumph for me, and finishing is... unexpected. When that went better than expected, I realized that, hey, I can actually race this year.

See, for me, Bethel seems like such a "home field" race, I kind of assume that people let me do well. I mean, yeah, I work hard, and yeah, the team worked hard, but I've been doing the race so long that I think of it as Not Real Racing. Bethel is always a "there's next week, and if not next week, next year." I feel like I always have a back up race coming up.

Real Racing happens in other races, like Prospect Park or East Hartford or Freehold or Rocky Hill. Bethel and my other "been doing this forever" Not Real Race (New Britain) are both venues where I have a pretty high minimum expectation. New Britain is the same way as Bethel - there's usually two races there a year, and if I screw up at one, I can come back another day. And back before Bethel, we raced a spring series there. So I raced there 7 or 8 times a year, and, frankly, did pretty well in the spring series.

But, in the same breath, I can also say that if I'm not in contention at Bethel or New Britain, I'm just as happy just racing around the course. So I'm never really upset - it's always okay, and I don't think I've left either course sorely disappointed in a long time.

Of course that leads into Real Racing, like the aforementioned crits in New Jersey. When I got 11th at Nutley I was ecstatic. I never finished Scotch Plains, ending up on the pavement twice, shelled another time.

See? Real Racing.

Well, the biggest biggie of Real Racing for me is the Tour of Somerville. It's as big as it gets - the longest running event in the US (apparently), the Queen of Crits. When I started racing the Tour of Somerville was probably the most prestigious crit on the East Coast, with Nevada City vying for honors on the West Coast.

For many, many years they only allowed Cat 2s or higher at Somerville, so I never got to race it.

Then, as some of the local races started disappearing, more and more races started slotting in the weekend of the Memorial Day Somerville. One such addition - the Streets of Somerville, a course with a long, big-ring drag, followed by a close-to-50 mph descent to reset the altimeter. I blew just as the sprint started (up the hill) but I'd made the trip down there.

Then, finally, Somerville allowed some lessor riders to race that day. I signed up for something, it could have been Masters 35+, maybe Cat 3s. Whatever, it was the fastest, most strung out race I'd ever done. I was clinging onto the back by my finger tips. After a few laps I realized that it'd take me a lap to move up 5 spots, and with 125 or something riders, and 10 laps left... well, I had to do some serious moving up.

I spent one lap moving up.

Half a lap later I blew sky high. Pulled out of the single file line of riders, after trying to bring the guy behind me up to the wheel in front of me.

And that was that.

I avoided returning there for various reasons. I wouldn't want to travel all the way there just to get shelled in a lap or two. Therefore any year where I had doubts about my form, I didn't go.


I think that's the only various reason I have. And since I had serious doubts about my form every year after that first Somerville, I didn't return.

Until today.

Because, for whatever reason, I have the best form I've had since my short stint in Belgium, and the season following that stint.

The Bethel Spring Series hinted at it. The Mystic Velo Crit helped confirm it.

And suddenly I was looking all over for crits I could enter. I had the form and I didn't want to waste it on group rides or sprinting after trucks. I wanted to use it up in races.

The next race after Mystic Velo that I could find?

Tour of Somerville.

Ten days prior to Memorial Day I checked the 10 day forecast. It looked reasonable so I registered for the race. 135 field limit, I was about rider 90. It would be a full field.

I had less than optimal prep for the race - too many days off, a little tumble, not enough work riding the bike. Although I didn't want to use up my race legs, I still needed some efforts, and I never got in any ideal ones, the high speed, high power efforts that help so much in epic crits.

The "Day Prior" ride didn't help much. I didn't feel like I was so good that I had to get off the bike right away (this happened before Ninigret). I struggled to turn over the pedals, worked hard to go 300-odd watts, felt dehydrated, and basically felt pretty horrible.

But, as the Missus pointed out, the day before isn't the important one. And I've raced well after a horrible Day Prior.

We trekked down to Somerville, NJ, a 2 hour drive from my Dad's place. Got there nice and early, chose a parking spot (the lot was basically empty), and started getting ready.

Before I had my bike together, sweat dripped from my face.

It was hot.

Mr. SRM says it was 100 degrees, and it might have been, in the sun, but most thermometers said 95. Whatever, it was hot.

We found registration, I picked up my numbers.


Sign of a Real Race? More than one number.

While the Missus used 16 (!!) pins to attach said numbers to a jersey, I got ready. This means adjusting my stem a bit (it turned a touch when I touched pavement Tuesday), lubed the chain, and load up my bottles. Two bottles, Gatorade mix, with a ZUUM for extra measure in one. More electrolytes, some caffeine, and some fizz. Excellent.

The Missus gallantly took my HED 6-9s with her and dropped them off at a pit. At some point later, I found a tired, sweat soaked Mavic guy, and verified that there was neutral service.

"Not to be dense, but is this neutral support?"

Ends up there were two neutral support pits, one at the beginning of each long straight. And the one I went to probably had my wheels there already, if I'd looked around a bit.

I did a couple laps, realized that the main stretch went slightly uphill, and it was long.

Like really, really long.

When you think you should jump, you have to wait. Because that's how it usually is at a race. But then when you really think you should jump, you have to wait again. Then, when you've waited that second time, and you're absolutely dying to jump, you have to wait yet again.

When you see the low finish line banner, and you hit the intersection shortly before it, then you can jump.


I promised myself to not sit up coming out of the last turn because in the gazillion meters from the last turn to the finish, I had a chance of recovering a bit before launching into the sprint. I mean I could have dinner, with an appetizer and a dessert, and still jump early in the sprint.

It's that long.

Tip: If you have problems with heat, and it's really hot, carry a bottle of water in your jersey (center pocket, if applicable). You can dump it on yourself for an instant air conditioning kind of feel. And if you're good, you can put the bottle back into your pocket, even at speed. Bonus if you freeze the bottle the night before.

I found the Missus, bought a precious bottle of water ($2.50 precious), poured most of it into a third bottle in my back pocket, drank the rest, and got ready for the race.

A friendly voice across the street - Brian W, he who helped me at one of the Bethels this year. I rolled across the street to say hi.

He, in turn, gave me some advice.

"You gotta stay up front. They'll be crashin' like fools today. You'll use more energy after the crashes than you will by staying up front. Top 5 out of the last turn and you can win."

Tip: When someone gives you advice, adjust it to fit your personal characteristics. When a time trialer says that you can easily solo the last 5 laps, remember it's a time trialer saying that.

I adjusted his words to my self-knowledge.

Stay up front, surf it hard. Crashes don't help anyone except those in front.

Top 5 out of the last turn and I'll get hosed in the sprint. 5th through 10th and I'll have a chance. 11th through 20th and I'll have a better chance in the sprint but I'll also risk crashing.

Properly armed, I started making my way towards the line. I managed to chat a bit with a guy on another team. We had a good talk actually, discussing some of the aftermath of the August 11 crash.

Then, with the Junior race winding down, we wormed our way to the line.

Tip: When staging for a Real Race, keep bike on ground, pointed in direction you want to go. Do NOT lean bike against fence/railing in such a way that you can't move it quickly.

I made the mistake of leaning my bike against the crowd barrier, in the one opening available in the 200 meters before the start. Eventually I wiggled my bike up and out, bumping guys while doing it.

"Sorry. Oh, sorry. Sorry about that. Sorry."
"Hey, as long as it's not during the race it's okay."
"Still, sorry. Oh. Well at least it wasn't the chainring. Sorry."

Then they released us.

I hobbled forward on my cleats.

Front row, baby!

Tip: When lining up for a Real Race, get your position, then stand next to the bike on the left side.

Do something like pick up the back and shift your derailleurs. Wiggle the bike a lot. Make your bike and yourself bigger than real, so that other riders don't crowd you. Left side because you don't want to stand on the chain side.

I got to the line and promptly put my bike into a better starting gear, raising the rear wheel off the ground, the bike wobbling precariously while I tried to shift the right shifter with my left hand.

Tip: When starting a Real Race, put it in the 3rd largest cog in the back, big ring up front.

For me I had an 11-23 so I put it in the 53x19, the third largest cog. Anything bigger and I may derail the chain back pedaling (when nervously waiting for the start), and anything smaller and I may bog down.

Tip: Practice clipping in by clipping out at every single stop sign, stop light, yield sign, whatever. And clip back in as fast as possible.

Real Races usually have announcers, and a tricky thing they do nowadays is to say "Go!" all of a sudden. They didn't do it for us, instead letting us stutter start.

"Ready... Set...."

Lots of shuffling as wheels start rolling.

Then lots of cleats clacking back on the ground since there was no "Go!".


Aw, crap.

When I dropped my shoe back onto the pavement it jiggled my cranks just right, flipping my pedal a bit. So when I went to clip in, pedal wasn't cooperating. I rolled while I raised my foot, tried to get back in again.

No go.

Finally I looked down and clipped in.

I'd lost 20 spots.

We dove into the first turn, then the second. Guys seemed content sitting in position. I moved up. I was actually pretty far up at the end of the first lap.

Then the racing started.

Most of it is a blur to me. I managed maybe five dumps of cool water from the jersey pocket bottle before I ran out. I also drank a bit of my ZUUM/Gatorade, but as I got more and more hot I felt more and more queasy.

The water dumps helped, but I quickly ran out of water, a soaking lasting, oh, half a lap or so.

Without really thinking about it I started dumping the ZUUM/Gatorade on my neck, face, and shoulders. When I ran out of that, I grabbed the other bottle of Gatorade, using most of it up the same way.

This got me through the race, although I wish I'd frozen a bottle for the jersey pocket. It was all good though, because frankly I wasn't sure if I'd get to the end.

In between bottle dumps I managed to slalom through a pretty massive pile up, spread out over a good 20 meters of straight, heard a big crash behind me going into Turn 3, and saw a slew of riders cutting off others in turns.

I was one of them, actually, because I couldn't, for some reason, corner that hard. I kept swinging wide. Sometimes it wasn't by much, like 6 inches, but enough to garner a deserved "Hey!". Whatever it was, I have to work on it, and, as the Missus pointed out, I have to race the race wheels in some hard cornering races, preferably training races, like the Rent. Tomorrow, at the Rent: race wheels.

With a couple laps to go I sat in excellent position, 4th, 5th wheel at times, surfing hard to maintain position. Screw all that moving up inside stuff - I was flagrantly blowing huge chunks of change maintaining position, moving up, following wheels. Each time I heard a crash or a yelp or something behind me, I worked even harder to stay up front.

At the bell I'd gotten swarmed a bit, but on the back stretch regained about 10th spot. The guy in front of me went a bit too hard to move up and ended up at the front, me sitting on his wheel.

Going into the second last turn at Somerville, I was sitting second wheel.

I couldn't believe it.

We dove into the turn, he took a tight line, and I... almost hit the outside curb.

Gotta work on that cornering. I was good at it, but no one would believe that, not there, not then.

I closed the gap I opened up, tucked right back on. My heart rate was well into the red zone, deep into it, in the high 180s. I didn't know that then but that's what Mr. SRM tells me.

I never see the high 180s. So this was a special effort.

We hit the main straight. Churned gears towards the finish. I started thinking that maybe something would happen, my legs would come around. I was hoping I could breath without feeling like my heart was doing somersaults in my chest.

Then, inevitably.

Big crash behind. It was so loud the guy in front of me actually jerked on the bike. For a moment I thought he'd lose control, but he tried to jump. The left side was moving hard, accelerating in slow motion, like they were in molasses.

I started to jump, get on another wheel, then realized that I was still two landmarks away from my jump point. I eased a bit. And my body shut down.

I watched the clump of riders slowly pull away from me, nothing super spectacular in their acceleration. I wondered if that's all it took.

Then, like a rocket, a pink and blue kit of the CRCA team. Juan Pimentel. Sitting maybe 20th. He'd avoided the crash and launched a spectacular sprint, like he was shot out of a cannon. Which is maybe a bit faster than a rocket, come to think of it. I don't know who won but he got second.

I crossed the line, the Missus watching, worried after that last crash. She'd watched me hold onto good position, didn't know what happened in those last two turns. But she watched me crawl over the line.

I'd been woefully unprepared. No extra water, no ice, no nothing. I Action Wiped myself down, using three of them to get myself to resemble a civilized human being.

I felt a mix of emotions. I guess I was semi-heat stroked so my brain wasn't functioning too well. I don't think I had a lot of energy to be really happy or really angry. But I felt these muted emotions.

Disappointed because I couldn't sprint.

Glad because I hadn't hit the deck.

Glad because I finished a race that used to be "unfinishable".

Glad because I'd pushed myself beyond my previous limits.

But when we pulled away, the Missus driving, and we started meandering back to the highway, I realized that it was all good.

Bike racing, as intense and fun as it is, is just a part of life. The Missus was really happy for me. I'd raced really hard, raced near the front, and stayed in contention in a race where the last time I did it I watched the finish from the sidewalk. Although I couldn't think that clearly, she could.

And that's that.


rick07306 said...

I was there today. I was wondering how it would be like to be in one of those races, everything was like a blur on the straightaways and this guy told me avg speed is 27 mi/hr (cat 1). Did not see the crashes but saw a lot of injured riders after the day concluded. Bound Brook the day before was also good. You ought to try that next year, you will do even better there.

Aki said...

SRM tells me 27.1 mph for the 3s, but that's for only 48 minutes. I think avg speed is like gas mileage - it's the low numbers that kill it. At Somerville there was very little "easy time" - most of the race was full on. At other races the "full on" bits are probably as fast but there are more "easy times", hence the avg speed comes down.

Still, though, I had nothing left at the end, so for me that was a bit faster than I'd have liked it.

I was worried about crashing, and when I dropped back a bit once I really backed off the wheels. Then the crash and I spent a lot of change to move myself back towards the front.

Wild and crazy. With better cornering I'd have been much more secure, and I wouldn't have felt the need to be so far up front going into the 3rd turn.