Monday, June 16, 2008

Racing - Harlem Rocks! 2008 recap

So many preconceptions, overturned in one great day. Yesterday I went to Harlem in New York City and raced my bike, and I had a great time. I went there with a few goals, in order, as I pointed out to the missus.

1. Stay upright.
2. Stay with the field.
3. Move to the front if possible.
4. Move to the front near the end if possible.
5. Sprint if near the front.

The first is self explanatory. Harlem is known as a crashfest, with lots of money and lots of prestige on the line. It makes for a sometimes sketchy race. But, like any normal human being, I didn't want to crash, wreck equipment, nothing like that. I needed all my faculties about me in a couple weeks and I didn't think being smashed up and unable to ride would be a good thing. I wanted to preserve my equipment too, since I can ill afford to be replacing some pricey wheels, frame, and components because some yahoo went barreling into a turn too hot. I contemplated bringing beater wheels but, after thinking about it, decided to bring my regular tubular Reynolds wheels. If I did wreck them, I'd race the clinchers. But the wheels offer so much mental and physical assistance that I couldn't bear to leave them behind.

The second might be surprising to those that revere my love for crits. See, it works like this. I specifically love crits that have short, steep uphills, like Bethel, or a little rise and fall, like New Britain. I absolutely hate flat crits because they offer little or no time to recover, I'm buried in FTP hell for the whole race, and if I don't get sawed off the back after 10 or so laps, I can't sprint anyway. With the money/prestige factor working at Harlem, I figured the pace would be super hot and that I'd be deep in the red from lap one. Last time I did it that's how I felt - suffering like a dog, barely able to stay on wheels, and counting laps until the inevitable snap of the elastic holding me to the field. (That latter was helped my last time here by my saddle breaking on a teeth-jarring pothole.)

The other goals are pretty straight forward. I mention the comet head in my recollections from my last few (and very long ago) Harlems. The field resembles a comet, and to get into the head area of it takes incredible nerve and bike handling skills. Although I figure I have the "mad skillz", the nerve, well, see Goal #1. Plus I'm getting too old for the elbow banging matches with 20 laps to go. So, if I felt reasonable in the race, I'd love to be able to get into that front bit.

Obviously if I can get up front, I may be able to get up front for the finish. And if I do that, obviously I'd work to get a good placing.

First off, like a commentator pointed in my recollections post, Harlem has changed.

A lot.

The corral I mention is now a baseball field, and in fact they were playing a game for part of the race day. No more parking inside the chain link fence area. So racers have to park on the street. And, oddly enough, I felt comfortable leaving both the car and my spare wheels (and the missus's purse etc) in the car. The streets were much cleaner than before (although it was still NYC), new buildings were going up, and overall the place looked spruced up.

Now, to be honest, that meant the iron grills ("building armor"?) protecting the windows and doors were all nicely painted and not twisted or bent, but, hey, improvement is improvement. The missus never got offered any drugs, no one asked her for money, and the one guy who came up to me looking pan-handlish asked me if the races had started, not if I had a dollar.

After looping around a bit, we found a spot to park (under a young tree), got out, and I prepared myself for a long walk to the start/finish area. Lo and behold we got an el primo spot just past Turn One, and we were good for the day. I think we parked on 118th street, ditching the Toshiba team van that was following us by doing a Simsbury Yellow (i.e. I floored it when it turned yellow) through a light. Incidentally the Toshiba team haven't been doing their take-home essay homework as they don't have race reports from May on, so no report from them.

But I digress. As usual.

One alarming observation we made as we crossed the Tri Boro Bridge a couple times (yeah we missed the Randalls Island turn off - we paid the NY authorities $10 in tolls in about 5 minutes) was that it was raining.

Harlem in the dry? Dangerous. Harlem in the wet? Totally and absolutely suicidal. Check out the DNFs in the races below the Cat 3s (but don't look at the actual results, else you'll be peeking). See how there are a bunch for the 4s and the M30s?

It's because it was wet when they raced.

I rolled up to the portapotties at Turn One during the M30 race, watched about 40 of them stack it up, then asked a familiar face (he was at Philly and he also races Bethel) to look after my bike while I used the facilities. When I got out the race was neutralized and about half a dozen guys were being treated. The missus had found my bike, seemingly laying on the ground in some haphazard way, and was standing there keeping an eye on it. She duly reported there had just been a crash with a few guys. No, I said, it was like 30 or 40. I looked up at the TV screen (foreshadowing on the TV). In fact there had been another crash, which they replayed on the screen. Oh.


I hope it dried up for my race.

(Since you looked, you probably saw how few Cat 3s DNFed - so you know it dried up).

Once we got there though, it was awesome.

As they put it, Harlem ROCKS.

Until now I had really ambivalent feelings about Rock Racing. I had less ambivalent feelings about one of their famous hires, Tyler Hamilton. Bad boy, just admit it, stuff like that. So I didn't think much of this "Harlem Rocks" thing. I mean, c'mon, "Harlem Skyscraper Classic" sounds fine.

Yeah, but dude, Harlem rocks!

RR showed up with a team bus, some enormous trailer, their Escalade, and I saw a black Rolls (or Bentley?) parked just around the corner from the course. Now the last thing could have been someone's car, but it just seemed too Rock-like. Anyway, they had TWO huge TV screens, those jumbo TV screens similar to the one (i.e. just a single one) that you see at Philly. They had fixed and boom-mounted cameras around the course, and they showed everyone every race.


After my race (I'm skipping just a bit) the missus was all excited. "I saw you on TV!" Heh. I'll have to do another post on RR because this entry will just get too long. And for me, that means it really is too long.

Okay, so I needed to warm up a bit. And I didn't heed my own advice to bring a trainer. You know, do as I say, not as I do, blah blah blah. I was pleasantly surprised to see not a stitch of glass anywhere on the road, and I rolled to Lenox Ave (one block away) to do some jumps with the traffic rolling back and forth.

Ah, it felt great. I did three good sprints (testing my shifting to prevent any shifting problems), dropping a poor soul from North Carolina (another Simbury Yellow) who was following my warm up moves. My legs opened up nicely, they felt great. Bike shifted well, so quiet I had to double check it shifted. After three hard jumps I thought any more would burn precious matches for the race so I rolled to the staging area.

We were well controlled until they called us to the line, then it was a mad scramble for the line. I could have been super aggressive and gotten into the front row but I felt it unnecessary. I'd use those chits up during the race. Second row it was.

The camera panned across the racers, and since the announcer was from Boston, of course he picked out all the unknown-to-the-New-York-racing-scene Mass riders. Although crowd pleasing, I'm sure the previously anonymous racers didn't appreciate it, especially when the announcer even gave out race numbers. It lets the crowd follow the racers but it also lets their competitors do the same.

Since the announcer wasn't talking about sprinters, I didn't care, and I promptly forgot the riders he noted.

In Harlem they start things differently. To avoid the normal "everyone goes at 3" when the official counts 3-2-1-Go!, they randomly blew the whistle while the announcer chattered away. The guy next to me was drinking from his bottle or hammering his brake lever sideways or something. I was keyed up enough that I fumbled my pedal, but so did the guy in front of me (my bike protecting racer, incidentally). I managed to get in and made a too-big-gear effort to slot in behind a line of racers.

Hey! I was near the front!

I mentally checked off Goal 3.

I waited for the inevitable stream of racers from both sides. Maybe I was remembering Belgium and not Harlem, or maybe the 125 field limit (with only 90 starters) really made a difference as opposed to the 150 rider fields from the past, but strangely enough, no one moved up too much. In fact, I think no one moved up.

After a lap or two I started finding my gears okay (more spinning, less pushing), I learned to sit back a bit more accelerating out of the turns (to avoid skipping the back wheel sideways over the manhole covers and such), and found that, well, I can corner.

The first lap card I saw said 18, and I have no idea how many laps we started with, but by then I was properly dialed in, enough so that I was looking up and around. I felt super comfortable in the corners, eased sometimes when I felt it unnecessary to fight, but never slipped too far back. In fact, I'd say I was in the comet head of the field for much of the race (versus the tail).

There were a couple inevitable crashes. One happened on the main straight, some guys tangled exiting Turn Four and I heard both metal barricades (not wood like before) and bikes colliding.

Bodies don't make as much noise but I'm just assuming the racers also ran into stuff.

Another was a wipeout on another straight, not sure what happened, but both were behind me, and I didn't look.

The corners were a revelation. I knew that at "tame" races like New Britain, Bethel, and Hartford I felt totally at ease in the turns, but I seem to remember being more intimidated in the NY/NJ races, where guys pull some pretty questionable moves to maintain position. In fact one racer pulled a move just to protect his start line position - as he rode to the line, he slalomed his bike back and forth about six feet. You couldn't pass him and he ended up on the front row. He'd do the same approaching a turn, protecting his inside, and I used to do it too. But now I just move a bit instead. And, to be fair, I didn't see him pull the move during the race.

I saw some initial hesitation in the turns, fatal for me (due to the required re-acceleration afterwards), so my racing algorithm quickly searched for a way to avoid these hesitating racers. These algorithms work in a straight forward way. One might be "If someone in blue-green hesitates on the inside, then don't follow him anymore". After you get a good 50 or 60 rules in place, it's easy to find your way around the field. Process is something like this:

"Blue-green, get to his outside"
"Black-white, he's good, but black kit in the summer?"
"White-blue, get to his inside"
"Yellow, get to his outside, but at the exit of turn, get to his inside"
"Blue-green-with-more-white, stay behind, he knows"
"Flappy number, inside but just a touch"
"Red, okay he knows"
"Blue-white, stay about 2 feet to his right"

So on and so forth for about 50 racers. Doing this in each turn can be a bit taxing mentally but it's the best way to control your fate.

Pause. Pause. Pause.

Okay, I'm just kidding :)

But not totally.

I found the middle of the field to be smoothest. I flew by other guys. One lap, on a prime/aggressive lap, I passed maybe 10 guys in ONE turn. The inside got scrunched, the outside got scrunched, and I coasted through the ensuing chaos and braked lightly as I came out of the turn to avoid rear ending frantically sprinting guys.


It all helped because I got to the end of the race and felt, well, okay. Heart rate had been steady at 170 for most of the race which is(well beyond my normal comfort level, but somehow okay on that day, so I decided to ignore the numbers from then on. My legs were okay, hands a bit numb from the bumps, and my crotch was getting uncomfortable too, from the bumps and the fact that I rarely stood.

The latter is key. I rarely stood because I rarely had to make a hard acceleration out of a turn. I mean, yes, I did have to sometimes, but most of the time I was seated, a position where I immediately give away about 400 watts of power. I didn't need to call on that power though, because of my efficient cornering.

Crits are a nice mix of speed, endurance, tactics, bike handling, and cajones, and with a lot of tactics, you need less of the other things.

With 5 laps to go I was (surprisingly) still up front and feeling possibilities. That's the worst, starting to day dream about the finish while in the race, so I quickly focused back on the race. Guys started getting a bit more frantic, I found myself offline a bit more often, sacrificing efficiency to maintain position, but we quickly barreled down into the last couple laps.

At two to go I mentally told myself "2, 2, 2!" to avoid a Hartford Debacle. I stayed in about 10th-15th spot, following moves, trying to stay out of the wind. My breathing started to get a bit labored though, and my legs started feeling the strain of the efforts. On the backstretch a tall lanky dude stood up and took off. A slow motion jump, but his size hinted at his TT strength, and he rolled up the road just a bit.

Ah, the winning move, I thought.

At one to go I looked down. 177 bpm. Sitting maybe 10th spot. Big banner over the road. Frantic announcer, yelling about the tall lanky dude with a miniscule gap. A whir of silver metal barricades. And we dove into Turn One.

Yellow attacks, hard, early apex, guys swearing, guys braking, and we launch out of the turn. The disruptions strings out out the field. Guys trying to bridge to the solo dude. Sprinters hanging on for dear life. I went into the wind when the guy in front of me hesitated. Better wind than swamped. Out of the saddle, no less, it was a massive effort.

Dive into Turn Two. Legs screaming from the effort to bridge that small gap. Praying for my massive hematocrit to bring relief to my legs, replenish all oxygen possible, recover enough to do a sprint. Single file, go inside to protect the inside. So much easier to move up inside because you don't risk slamming into the barriers at your turn out point. Everyone goes inside, so you gotta protect it.

Legs are coming around. Another 15 seconds and I'll have a sprint again. The bar is filling, it's like loading a web page, but this is my sprint. Load, load, load!

Dive into Turn Three. The guy to my front inside hasn't protected his inside too well. Someone tries to sneak into the non-existent gap on the curb. Bam. They connected, both starting that dreadful wobble as the front wheels oscillate, both of them veering out in front of me.

I slam the brakes on, watch the guys recover, and oscillate out of the way, one to each side.

My sprint hasn't loaded but I jump to get going again. 50 foot gap to the 15th place guy, maybe he's 14th. Either way, it's 300-400 meters to the last turn, and 300 meters from the straight. My legs fall away. I'd be a moving chicane in that last turn, I have nothing left.

Remembering Goal One, I raise my hand, indicating a mechanical (or in this case, a biological), ease up. It takes until Turn Four for everyone to pass me, but I finally find myself alone. I roll up to the line, the follow motorcycle just behind. Just for kicks I do a mini throw at the line, wishing I could have done it for real. Someone cheers my name.

33 seconds down, according to the fancy timers.

You know what they say, right?

There's always next week. And there's always next year.

Next up: Rock Racing.


City Football Club said...

Love the blog! If you and/or any of your readers have any photos we could use on from yesterday's Skyscraper, we would love to have them (will definitely give you a photo credit -- can be your name or your blog's web address).

Also, you can watch our broadcast of the event free and on-demand at, and we are adding highlights from the races as I write.

Dan Driscoll
Web Producer,

Anonymous said...

Great report of an amazing race - didn't know we'd be within a couple dozen blocks of ea. other (Mrs. and I were at the NYBG). Stoked you made the race, but even more psyched you achieved Goal #1 - those DNF lists are crazy scary.