Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Racing - Cat 2


In 1983, when I first got my license, when I first watched a bike race (the US Criterium Championships in Nutley, NJ), when I first learned about bike racing, I learned about this thing called a "Cat 2".

'Twas a mythical creature.

They abounded at the crit championships. Gleaming legs, impeccable form, perfect tans, gleaming bikes. They looked and rode like gods.

I realized that I was different from them.

They knew something I didn't know.

And right then, right there, I decided that I wanted to be a Cat 2.

At some level I never believed it would happen. It's just like a lot of things in my life. I wanted to do this or do that but never really thought that it'd happen.

I went and got my license and dreamed of the whole Cat 2 thing but it seemed kind of out of this world.

Life, though, kept happening.

For example, when I first saw the Tears for Fears video for "Everybody Wants to Rule the World", I thought, "Oh, man, that's what I want to do!"

Tears for Fears Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Uploaded by Celtiemama.
What I wanted to do.

I really wanted to go on a long trip, driving, contemplating, being on my own, driving all day through anonymous non-descriptive stuff (like desert or plains or something that's not New England-like), then pull into a rest stop and pick up the phone and call someone important to me.

And have me be important back to them.

Things seemed to kind of flow with a lot of these fanciful ideas of mine. About four years after I thought about this totally unreachable cross-country trip idea, I set off on a trip yet to be chronicled here. I had a not-so-cool car, my bikes (road and mountain), all sorts of backup and redundant gear, and set off on a trip.

Over the course of the trip I pulled into a rest stop or two and called people who were important to me.

And, yes, I was important to them too.

I won't go into details here (the first post would barely get me across Pennsylvania, even with my wordiness), but suffice it to say that I had an interesting, adventurous, and ultimately successful trip.

Of course I made it. Otherwise I wouldn't be typing now.

I had a lot of other fanciful thoughts, and one by one a lot of them came true.

However, the more I rode, the further away the Cat 2 felt. I raced for three years, even winning a Cat 4 race, before upgrading to a 3. Once a 3 though, things progressed... slowly.

I read how Greg Lemond wrote down all his goals. He was on top of the sport as a 16 year old, and he wrote down some lofty things. World Champion. Turn pro. World Champion as a pro. And Tour de France.

I wrote down some goals too, during the winter before my first Senior year. I learned about goal setting and worked backwards from being a pro. For me it came to this: If I couldn't do Philly, I wouldn't be able to make it as a pro.

Now back then you could just kind of sign up for Philly. One of the local Masters guys did it. Off the back, but he was there.

So basically I wanted to race Philly. I wanted to race it bad.

Of course I'd never ridden 156 miles in my life, and I hadn't ridden more than, say, 40 miles at any kind of reasonable pace ("reasonable" = getting dropped by Juniors in a road race).

So when I graduated out of the Junior ranks, I immediately got a huge gear (53x12) and started piling on the miles.

I did ten thousand miles that year. I finished one race. I was so tired, so fatigued, I couldn't hang on when the pace went over, oh, about 23 mph.

But, man, at 23 mph, I was strong!

So that kind of put paid to that idea of riding as a pro. I never rode 156 miles at one time that year, and I still haven't.

I decided to aim a bit lower. Although Philly seemed unreasonable, maybe Cat 2 was a bit more realistic.

To get that mythical upgrade, at least at that time, you had to get top 3 in three races or top 6 in six.


But I never placed top 6.

Well, barely, sometimes, the few times I could finish a race.

I'd have to do that six times in a season to get my upgrade.

Since I could barely hang on in a Cat 3 race and I got destroyed in Cat 1-2-3 races, that Cat 2 thing felt simply unreachable.

It kind of went away for a while.

A few years later I managed to score a few good races, enough so that a Cat 2 racer (and official) offered to upgrade me. He told me he felt I was ready to make the next step.

Incredibly, I felt the opposite.

Okay, fine, I loved bike racing. I loved duking it out. But I trained like I practiced violin as a 5 year old - briefly, rushed, and the absolute bare minimum necessary.

When the official offered to upgrade me, I turned him down. I felt unready, uncommitted.

A Cat 2, standing nearby, commented that it was a huge step to upgrade. I'd have to almost double my training miles. He pointed out he went from doing 250 mile weeks to over 400 mile weeks.

My then girlfriend couldn't help herself.

"You mean he'd have to ride like 90 miles a week?"

The Cat 2 looked at her, puzzled.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, he rode 45 miles this week. So if he doubled it, it'd be like 90 miles."

That didn't go over too well with the Cat 2.

Although that was a slight exaggeration, it was just a slight one.

I started racing more. I learned about Tuesday night sprints at SUNY Purchase. When those stopped I'd do the Tuesday night Cat 123 Floyd Bennett Field races in Brooklyn. I woke up early to do Prospect Park, then, if I could stay awake, drove over and did the Gimbles ride. I raced the 3s and the 123s.

I raced and raced and raced and raced.

The upgrade requirements started getting a bit more detailed.

I kept missing.

15 points. I'd have 13.

30 points. I'd have 28.

So on and so forth.

I thought I'd win one race. I got a 50 mph leadout down a slight hill, my leadout man totally spun out. I had it in the bag for sure, totally had it. My leadout guy was so fast he placed top six in the race.

50 meters from the line a guy rocketed past.

I lost.

The guy who beat me was from Colorado. His license, after the address change, came back "Cat 4". He was a Cat 2, and he requested a correction.

"Sorry, we have no record of you being a 2. If you really are a 2, you'll be able to upgrade in no time."

He won his first three Cat 4 races. He won his first three Cat 3 races. And he beat me in one of them.

I needed those points, but I couldn't get them. He got them.

I got 7th a lot. 8th. Places that didn't score points. I got 11th a lot for some reason. But not enough top 6 places to get the points to upgrade.

Then life kind of turned a corner. I had less time to train. Less of a bike environment. I didn't have my pulse on the industry like I had before.

I contemplated not doing Bethel, meaning not holding it.

(I never contemplated quitting racing though.)

I gained weight. I gained a lot of weight. In my collegiate years I barely broke 110 lbs, at 5'7". In 2003 I was over 215 lbs. My mom had been dying of cancer, and I made her an almost deathbed promise: that I'd win Bethel and the CT Crit Gold medal for her.

After her suffering finally ended in August of 2003, I started riding more, thinking of the promise I'd made just a couple months earlier.

I lost about 35 pounds, leaning down to a passable 180 lbs. Two years later, balancing on the razor's edge of starvation and strength (or so I thought) at about 177 lbs, I won the Bethel Spring Series. The next year I earned the gold medal in the CT Crit Championships.

I hit a plateau though. Not enough racing, and since racing was my training... well, you get the picture.

Two years ago I started doing the Tuesday night races in East Hartford. I'd do the A races (I had to) racing against mainly 3s and 2s, with the leg breaking Cat 1s making appearances occasionally.

I'd drive to the New England Velodrome the next day, spend a few hours pedaling around, racing when it was time, and learning that, guess what, I needed to re-learn how to suffer.

I also started going to some group rides, a Monday local shop ride my most regular one. Over two hours typically, with enough regroupments that I could safely experiment with extreme efforts on hills and such.

I started finishing races that were out of my league just a few years ago. The extra racing, the group rides, they were paying off.

Then, in the fall of 2009, it came to a screeching halt.

I lay on the road, a double fracture of the pelvis, a screwed up shoulder.

For the first time in my life I thought about bike racing as a subset of my life. It was always just a part of me, but now, well, I thought of what it meant to me.

About eight weeks after the fall, when I started working again, I decided that cycling was a part of my life.

I embarked on a militant dieting schedule. I shed weight that I'd been carrying for years, for almost a decade.

I ordered a custom frame, 5 or 6 cm longer than my current frame, with a shorter seat tube and a shorter head tube.

I revamped my whole wheel line, going to the wide rim theory, going with HED. Light carbon tubulars for racing, various clinchers for training.

Over the winter and spring I went on three, yes three, training trips. Well, two were just trips where I brought the bike, but I spent time training on three trips.

And suddenly things started clicking.

Races where I struggled to finish were high placing races. Races where I thought I'd get shelled... I placed. Races where I thought I could contribute just a pull or two for a teammate... I spent laps at the front of the field.

And towards the end of this year... I had enough points. In fact, in the spring, my overly optimistic self realized that if I didn't stop placing, I'd be forcibly upgraded.

In late August, the 30th to be precise, I decided that for 2011 I'd try and race as a Cat 2. I had the points, finally. More importantly I felt ready. A specific ready, but ready.

I didn't know that you could request an upgrade online. I mean, yeah, I saw the little square on "My USA Cycling" where it said "Request an upgrade" or something like that. But I never clicked it. I just figured a pdf would pop up and I'd have to mail it in.

When I clicked on the square, it simply asked for some info. I filled it out as best I could, and when a customer showed up (I was doing it at work), I figured "What the heck" and submitted the form.

A few hours later I checked my email.

"USA Cycling Support Ticket Closed"


I opened the email. When I realized it had to do with the upgrade, I dialed the Missus.

"I just got upgraded! I got upgraded!"
"I'm a Cat 2! A Cat 2! I can't believe it!"
"Wait, how do you know?"
"Email. I sent in a request and put down all the races and put down when I worked for someone else and I didn't think I'd get it back for a week but then I checked the email and it was right there, right in the email, it said the support ticket was closed and I was like I didn't open a support ticket but then I realized it was the upgrade and I clicked and it said I got it!"
"Are you sure you got upgraded?"

I rushed back to the computer. I couldn't focus, all this mumbo jumbo I typed about my races and stuff, and at the bottom I saw the magical words:

"...a Cat 2 sticker for your license..."


We both giggled.

For a few hours I was on Cloud 9. I posted on BikeForums "Time to walk the walk. Cat 2."

Would you believe someone thought I had to take two cats out for a walk?

Then reality set in.

Holy smokes.

I can't race a 3 race with SOC. I have to do the P123 race, or, heaven forbid, a P12 race. Those are some frickin' fast racers. I watch the races and I'm just astounded at how fast they go, and how long they go that fast.

Now I gotta race them.


Someone said that this was a "specialist" upgrade, and there's no denying that. I'm a flat to rolling crit specialist. If you want to be really precise, I specialize in crits that end in a hill or have a finish that is a descent away from any hill on the course. Oh, and I really like it if there's a way to move up in the last lap. I know, wishful thinking for a Cat 2 race, but I'll see if I can make it work.

Another thing - the race can't average more than, say, about 28 or 29 mph.

Any hill more than, oh, 200 meters long, and I go shooting off the back.

Time trials? Don't make me laugh. Actually, I'll save you the embarrassment of spitting up the coffee you're drinking. I'm that bad. Really.

And road races?

I do my best road races in the wheel van.

But yeah, I'm a 2.

The next day, on August 31st, I did the last Tuesday@TheRent (or in Twitterese, @TuesdayTheRent). As a 2 I felt, well, obliged to be a good racer. And although I hadn't finished a Rent race since forever ago, I hung in there. I suffered endlessly, thought of giving up a bazillion times. Every time I thought of giving up, I remembered... "I'm a 2" Heck, I even won the field sprint.

So, where the proof? I know you want to see the Cat 2 sticker, right?

Yeah, well, so do I.

Because I was so amped when I read the email, I didn't see the "send a self addressed stamped envelope" bit until just now.

I'll have to post the picture of the license at a later time.

I gotta go find an envelope.

Two of them, actually.

And two stamps.


Loren said...

Very Cool.


Panzer Plan said...

Great story! Your persistence paid off. Congratulations. Looking forward to the Spring Series.

Sigberto Garcia said...

Congrats! Cool story too.

You got a response quickly... here in the mid-atlantic it takes weeks. I had 36 points and it took about 3 weeks to hear back for my cat 2 upgrade.

And they don't even give us stickers. We have to print the "authorization to ride" offline.

Jake said...


I started riding in May of this year. I've lost 26 lbs (206 to 180) Reading your blog has planted the racing seed in my mind.

I figured I would set some goals: first to enter a race, second to not quit when I got destroyed and third to become a Cat 3. I figured this was realistic and, after all, Cat 3 is what Sprinter Della Casa is!

Now I may just need to update my goals.

AmD said...

About freakin time. :) Way to go Aki. Time to set your new goal of being a Cat 1!

Anonymous said...

SdC - Many congratulations. I am excited for you and the stories you'll be getting to live.

Anonymous said...


holy crapoli.

Think thin walled steel frame and fork. Like the feeling you had when waiting for the basso. Cat 2, unbelievable.

what goes around comes around. Great feeling, eh ? Like when we were kids. Awesome

I'll tell mike.

Talk with funk about the training and mileage. Just a thought. all the luck.


Aki said...

Thanks everyone. I just hope that I can live up to the category now.

Although "persistence" is a word used a lot in the comments, I can't say that I was focusing on Cat 2 for all those years - it was never the driving factor. I wanted to race well and have the Cat 2 happen as part of the whole thing, not as a result of it.

L, PP, g - thanks :)

Sig - I didn't realize you were a 2, so congrats :)

J - the weight loss is huge, just huge when it comes to bike racing. But I don't have to tell you. Now work for next year! I realize that SDC is a Cat 3 thing, but I felt the need to make the step. I don't know if I'd be able to make it another time.

AmD - thanks. I still have to send the empty boxes - my wheel plans got derailed a bit. Congrats to you too.

Kev - glad you're in touch with Mike. Hope things are good. And, yeah, it's like when we were kids. Hopefully without sticks taking out rear derailleurs. I still feel guilty about that one.

Kokorozashi said...

Sweet! (Belated) Congratulations!

You're always inspiring, but somehow, even after all the poring over your blog I've done in the past six months or so, I didn't realize you'd ever been out of shape at all.

The fact that you whipped yourself back into shape, even after a pelvic fracture (OMG!!!), and that you've now made it to Cat 2 means a lot to me as another small guy carrying around some extra weight and working his way back into fighting form.

Like Jake, I'll be working for next year this winter. I was feeling a touch discouraged, because our cycling community around here is seriously competitive and I was basically the fattest guy at my last (and only) race (though, oddly, I guess I'm no longer 'fat' outside of cycling circles, LOL). You've really put the wind back in my sails.

I'm sure your Mom would be very, very proud.

Aki said...

K - I'm glad that someone got something out of me being heavy! I tell you, losing the weight was the biggest thing for my riding. The numbers clearly showed my power didn't budge (it was lower early this year then stabilized at the same level). Still, though, I felt much better on the bike. I think I rode a bit more, yes, but I did that last year too. So the weight was the key.

Keep in mind that I still can't climb. So it's not all about weight and such, it's what you can or can't do also. Of course the tactics and all that help too, at least in the flatter races.

Nevertheless I'm glad you got something out of my trials and tribulations. Good luck in 2011!