Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2011 - Somerville Cat 2s

Gateway to paradise...

The main straight sits at the end of this walkway.

At least for those crit racers out there.

Yes, this is Somerville, New Jersey.

For those like me, it's a love-hate thing. I love it. I hate it. It's a fantastic race, a classic if you will, one of the premier races covered in the old paper-only issues of VeloNews. It's also umpteen gazillion hours away, a real pain for us folks used to sub-2 hour drives to races.

As a competitor it's a dangerous race. Amped-up racers, some tight corners, and the prestige of one of the biggest crits on the East Coast and you have a recipe for disaster. Last year virtually everyone I knew in my race crashed, some twice. I avoided crashes simply by being at or near the front, with one lucky avoidance sequence when I let myself drift back into the field.

A racer can't enter Somerville without thinking of the possibility of a hard crash - it's just the way the race dynamics work.

The course itself isn't that interesting, four corners, each slightly different from a standard, flat, 90 degree turn.

The first turn comes at the end of an insanely long final straight (800m?), a false flat no less, so it's the slowest of them all. The second is massively wide, coming off of a slight downhill, and very fast. It's the most unpredictable turn since you have so much pavement to work with - racers can take three or four different lines through the turn, virtually side by side, and still make it through in one piece.

Usually anyway.

The third turn is the scariest and usually the safest. You hit it about as fast as you hit a turn, diving from a four lane road into a two lane road, on a slight downhill. The field approaches it virtually curb to curb on most laps, with riders trying to move up the side, and those in front fanning out to defend against such moves.

Because it's the scariest turn, because at some level racers aren't necessarily suicidal at races(although they may look it if you watch them dive into this turn), it's paradoxically one of the safer turns.

The fourth turn really isn't a turn, more like a bend, and most racers don't count it as a turn. The only exciting part is an island built in the middle of the road, a median type thing. Because of this the relatively wide road narrows dramatically.

The rest of the course is okay. Deep manhole covers mar the course, forcing racers to either mentally map their locations or swerve around those forgotten ones. The main straight is so bumpy that your wheels chatter and bounce, and that's on the smooth stuff. The rough stuff will eject bottles, hamper handling, and make for numb hands and butts.

Somerville is usually blazingly hot. Last year it hit the mid 90s. This year it missed that mark just by a few degrees. In hot temperatures, especially in high humidity, I knew that dumping cold water worked better for me than trying to drink a quart or two of liquid while physiologically maxed out. I therefore tried a new secret weapon, one that I've seen a number of riders using:

The CamelBak Podium Chill Bottle.

Now, I've tried the CamelBak backpack thing and road jersey, and I have to admit that they didn't work out as planned. I'll try them again but their main disadvantages in a crit are that they are tough to drink from, they cannot be tossed when done, and they make your back hotter. I'd planned the Tsunami around a "no waterbottles" method of riding, but now I use them.

Once I saw the forecast for 94 degrees on Memorial Day in Somerville, I asked the Missus to pick up a couple of the Chill bottles. I don't do well in heat and I needed to have coldness. Since I had to carry bottles, I decided I'd carry ones that kept things cooler.
The good thing about those CamelBak water things is that they're insulated, at least the main bag part. Once you work through the liquid in the hose (ice cold or tepid, depending on the outside temperatures), you're treated to a nice soothing flow of (usually) chilled water.

I like the chill, not the rest of it.

Therefore the Podium Chill Bottle.

I tried it just before the race, riding with two bottles, one Chill and one team issue bottle. Both had equal amounts of water, equal amounts of ice. At the end of my Quarry Road loop, which takes just under an hour, the team issue bottle had become lukewarm and very unappealing.

The Podium Chill had just allowed the last of four ice cubes to melt and still felt refreshingly cold.

The Chills made the cut for Somerville.

Spraying 32 degree water into my helmet vent holes.

One thing I didn't realize was that although the Chill bottles were taller than the normal large bottles, I didn't realize just how much more fluid they held. The height had forced me to move my under-top-tube pump to the between-bars-and-skewer mount on my training/test ride. I didn't realize the implications on the rough roads of Somerville.

I'll be trying the Podium Ice bottle next, the one that's twice as effective as the Chill.

Before the race I said hi to a friendly competitor, Sam R. He's a rider phenom, a version of Cavendish in riding strengths, someone who shot up from Cat 5 to Cat 2 in one season, and then almost podiumed in his first P12 race.

This would be his kind of race, a long hard sprint after a fast race. Not too long that those road racer types would make a difference, and definitely more like a race where people finished with a lot in the tank.

I told the Missus afterwards that I'd decided that if I were up there but a bit tanked that I'd work for him.

"Did you tell him?"
"Well, no. I don't know if I'll be there or if I want to race for myself."

After I got kitted up, very early I might add, I went to the officials' stand to verify that they'd be okay with the Cane Creek Speed bars. I knew that they were legal officially, but you never know when you go outside your region. For example, it's a rule that you have to wear a helmet any time you get on your bike, with an immediate $20 fine if you get caught sans helmet, but in this area riders rolled around everywhere with nary a helmet near their head.

So, knowing the rule enforcement changes from region to region, and wanting to work within whatever region I happened to be racing in, I asked about the Cane Creek bars.

As I waited for the official to come back, a racer rolled up to me.

"I like your blog."


It's nice to hear that this time and energy I put into the blog gets appreciated somewhere.

The official returned after asking the board of officials my question.

"Will you support yourself on them?" the official asked me, a question relayed to her from the board.

Well, yes. But not like aero bars, not like the forearms on the bars thing (or "invisible aero bars", except these weren't invisible). I'd grip the lower parts, the way the bars were designed. I demonstrated to the official in question.

She looked at me questioningly.

I figured I'd take them off, just in case. And it's not like I'd be time trialing to a solo victory or anything.

As I left she very politely and kindly thanked me for asking in advance. I'm afraid that my courtesy threw her for a loop - I think many riders treat officials with something akin to contempt, an obstacle between the racer and the goal. But for me officials represent order within the chaos. Although the "order" may differ here and there, as long as I know the rules I also know where my boundaries sit.

I lined up late, willing to sacrifice a forward position for cooler water. Instead of waiting near the line I rolled over to the Missus and my "race base" for the day. With a cooler, chair, some food, and shade, we'd staked out a good spot on the endless sidewalk around the course.

I picked up the Chill bottles, had a gel, and worried a bit about the race with the Missus. I also dumped some ice water on myself, then the Missus dumped some more. Once at the line a few riders greeted me with warm grins. I guess it's comforting to see a friendly face when facing a tough challenge like Somerville. I can't imagine how good it would feel like to see a friendly face in a tougher situation like a battle zone.

After an inauspicious start (I had to wait for the group to get going, then promptly flubbed my clip in), I realized that we weren't going that fast. I'm sure the riders at the front would beg to differ but I felt much more at ease here than I did last year.

Truth be told it felt more like a Rent race than Somerville.

Hm. I'll have to file that thought away for future reference.

During the race I was lucky not to have lost one Chill bottle on the main straight. The taller bottle with higher capacity (and therefore more weight), along with poorly shaped shoulders on the bottle, overwhelmed my previously impervious Specialized Rib Cage. The bottle ended up almost 90 degrees tilted in the cage after I slammed the bike (inadvertently, honestly) really hard into a succession of potholes and manhole covers.

I straightened the bottle temporarily and then repositioned the bottle as soon as I could, on the smoother back straight. Stuffed in my center rear pocket, I kept the full bottle there until I got about 3/4 of the way down the other bottle, which took about 8 of the 15 laps (20 miles). Then I put the light bottle in the downtube cage, the full bottle in the more secure seat tube cage.

For Somerville, as a 2, in a 2s only race, I decided I'd risk all for the sprint. I figured that the 2s would be fast and consistent, marked by constant breaks and chases, kind of like Ninigret or The Rent. I thought this would reduce the crashiness of Somerville.

I also hoped that by racing scared, i.e. totally sheltered, I'd have gas left for the finish. At the Mystic Velo Crit I raced like I could do whatever I wanted to do. When I saw a chase go up the road, threatening to catch a break even further up the road, I told myself the race would be decided from that front group. I went after the chase, exploded spectacularly when I got there, and I paid for my efforts by riding myself right off the back of the group.

The front group did contest the race, but it had been joined by first the chase group, then by the rest of the field. If I'd been hiding in the field I'd have had an opportunity to sprint.

Instead I just watched it from the side of the course.

So, for this year's Somerville, I decided to tail gun aggressively. I'd have to make sure I could, because a fast, strung out field doesn't allow much respite in the turns. But if the field bunched up for that tight third turn, it'd be a great place to rest or soft-pedal for 15 or 20 seconds.

The field, for reasons explained below, eased a lot.

I tailgunned.

Tailgunning view. It's an intentional gap.

Tailgunning has its disadvantages of course. The main one, and the main reason why most racers feel intimidated by the tactic (aka think it's useless), is that since you have no control over what happens in the race, you have no control over what happens in the race. You can't chase, block, attack, or even watch over your competition. You're sacrificing those aspects of the race in order to have that much more a powerful move, whether an all out attack or the final sprint.

The other disadvantage is you have a higher chance of being behind a crash.

Er, like so.

Scattered riders in a race = not good.

Sam R's teammate, looking over because he sees his friend in distress on the deck.
Those black dots (with shiny bits in the middle) on the pavement are cyclo-computers - they all bounced off the bikes in the crash. One was a Specialized, dunno the other two.

The crash happened because two guys started talking and then fell over. Egads.

Sam, to the right, aboard an unfamiliar yellow bike (his bike is a black Cervelo).
Oh, right. It's a SRAM neutral service bike. I never saw a neutral bike in action, except that picture of Jens.

After being held up by such a crash, racers dig deep to get back into the race, moi included. Curiously enough the field sat up and waited for two laps, going pretty slow, until everyone reintegrated. Some joined like me, by chasing on. Some joined from the Turn Two pit, and others from the Turn Four pit.

I regularly doused myself with ice cold water throughout the race, a welcome relief in the 90 degree temperatures.

I soft-pedaled into the third turn so far off that I wondered if I'd over done it.

I managed to avoid that second manhole cover on the main straight, about 10 meters past and one meter to the right of the decoy not-so-bad one. I did hit it two laps in a row, and the jarring I received did much to encourage me to move over a bit.

As the laps wound down, the front of the field got wider and wider. Everyone was trying to jam in towards the front, looking for the perfect spot for the sprint.

That's when I realized something, the thing I alluded to when I was talking about tail gunning.

No one really attacked during the whole race.
Not a single racer.

Okay, fine, they went after primes and stuff, but no one actually went and got a 40 second gap and forced the field into a suffering single file of racers.

In fact, as sacrilegious as it may sound, this year's Cat 2 race was easier than last year's Cat 3 race. I'm less fit, heavier, and it was easier.


Because of the racers.

Racers make a race hard. If I get shelled on a hill it's not because I can't climb the hill. It's because I can't climb the hill as fast as the other racers. If I get shelled in a super fast P123 race, it's not because of whatever whatever, it's because the freakin' front was going 35 mph all day long.

And likewise, if the racers decide not to race, even Mount Washington would be doable for someone like me.

This was the case, I think, at this year's Somerville.

We were all Cat 2s. Most Cat 2s have to race P123 races, or, worse, P12 races. The guys who can place in the 3s are usually sprinters or break specialists. The super motorheads usually upgrade to Cat 2 or 1 pretty quickly, but the ones that become a 2 and stay there? They're sprinters. In P123 races the break usually wins, so the strong guys end up upgrading to Cat 1.

That leaves the hapless Cat 2. Strong enough to race out of the 3s, too weak to annihilate the P/1s.

Everyone who was doing this Cat-2-only Somerville was doing it because they love crits. Everyone here loves the cornering at high speeds. Everyone here loves sprinting.


So the whole field consisted of sprinters waiting for the sprint.

That meant no breaks. No chases. No huge train of riders at the front. No crazy attacks. No nothing. Just plodding along to the finish.

I plodded along too, balancing heat control (i.e. water dousing), effort, and position. It wasn't a total cakewalk for me, but it wasn't a true sufferfest. Usually position came in last so I rode in last or close to last place, my legs pretty fresh, a very good jump still left in them. I lacked that serious lactic acid buildup so familiar in those super hard races.

I declined moving up as we passed 5 to go. At 3 to go the front got really wide and fast, everyone trying to nudge their way to the front. I decided that I'd gamble all on the last lap, on the backstretch, then on the front stretch. I'd move hard on the backstretch, survive that third turn, then jump super late on the main stretch, trying to stay sheltered until the last 150 meters or so.

This wasn't a win-or-nothing strategy. This was more of a "get a top 20" strategy, get in the money, be listed in the results.

As we came up on 2 to go I briefly contemplated making a suicidal move off the front. I'd get some air time, get off the front, and maybe, just maybe, do a lap solo. 3 minutes would be difficult, a fast lap at Somerville. 6 minutes to win the race, virtually impossible.

Then the moment passed and I slid back into anonymity.

I heard the bell while sitting pretty far back in the group, not happy with my position, but satisfied that I had the legs to go.

Turn One went by easily, smoothly.

Turn Two went by okay too. Well, the turn part did. Then there were riders all over the road.

The crash happening exiting Turn Two, last lap of the race.
The different lean angles indicate something's up.

I eased a bit after I threaded the carnage, thinking that would be it for me. Then, looking up, I could see some of the racers working to regain contact with the field.

And some of them looking like they'd succeed.

I started to roll, eased again, then decided that I'd roll to the finish. I didn't commit just yet though, slowly getting up to speed.

A racer behind me rolled up next to me.

His words revealed his relationship with Somerville.

"This is why I hate Somerville."

He said it again, in case I didn't hear, but I was too busy figuring out if I could pedal or not.

I rolled away without acknowledging him, knowing there's a big chance he'd be lining up here next year, understanding just what he meant. And feeling exactly the same way he felt, minus a bit of the hate. I felt more disappointment really, knowing I gambled and lost. Another year it might have worked. This year it didn't.

My legs protested as I pushed them to the line, unfamiliar effort. I realized that my 2 lap to go attack would have fizzled pretty quickly.

A couple minutes later I crossed the line to polite applause. The spectators appreciate effort, and there were enough folks around that some actually clapped.

The officials politely placed me 67th.
On the way home, just like on the way there, the Missus and I spent the 3+ hour drive talking. We counted deer like we did on the way there (I never saw so many dead deer - we probably saw over 20), passed a delapitated RV a couple times that looked like 'Mater's brother, and talked about all sorts of stuff.

Mater's bro.
Note the patchwork and significant body lean.

At some point I expounded on the virtues of turbos and comparing pressure between regular turbos, the high pressure ones, and her Jetta's TDi. The turbo talk had reminded me of the various mods one can do to a turbo car quickly and easily.

We talked about my selling my blue car, my red car, and getting a car (in all likelihood another TDi) to replace both. I also analyzed what I like about the blue car so much, mainly to do with handling, braking, and, at least at some level, the acceleration. On a TDi I'd be able to replicate the three factors at some level.

At some point she turned to me with a cheeky grin on her face.

"You talk so sexy when we're in the car."

Aw, shucks, don't I though?

When we got home the cats were eagerly awaiting us, circling with their tails up, tips curled, looking like fuzzy feline bumper cars at the fairgrounds, circling randomly. With the Rent the next day we left most everything in the car, taking out just the kit I wore and the coolers holding all the various bottles we brought. We'd left 14 hours earlier, and after a long day out, it was good to be home.

Somerville. So easy to hate. And so easy to love.


JR said...

Is this a true fact for just you or for most people,

"In hot temperatures, especially in high humidity, I knew that dumping cold water worked better for me than trying to drink a quart or two of liquid while physiologically maxed out."
And by the way, the name is Jon, but generally go by JR. Nice meeting you yesterday. Keep up the great blog.

Aki said...

I think it's true with most people. The problem with absorbing liquids while exercising is pretty well acknowledged, hence stuff like cutting down Gatorade (to reduce sugar content), etc. Plain water is great, but I've been in hot races with a sloshy stomach, overheating, and wishing I'd dumped the water on my head instead of drinking it.

There's also a matter of how much you can cool yourself by drinking water. I know it's less efficient to dump water than to drink it, but it's also not very efficient to pedal really hard in 90-odd degree weather. After a particularly hot Rent race (105 deg F), a fellow racer came over and dumped a full bottle of ice cold water on my head, telling me I need to get my core temps down. I felt instantly refreshed, even though I'd been drinking fluids before, during, and after the race. It's impossible to cool down like that by drinking that water - too much liquid to absorb that heat energy. Instead, by dumping a lot, the heat energy gets absorbed relatively quickly.

Alexi Grewal has mentioned in a few interviews that he was starting to fade in the unsheltered intense heat in the 1984 Olympics. Then some lady threw a bucket of ice cold water on him. He felt better instantly.

Granted, you feel hot shortly thereafter, but for a 1 hour race, I found that two Chill bottles work perfectly. The last bit of water I dumped on myself was refreshingly cold, and that was about 40 minutes into the race.

Good to meet you too. As you know I was a bit distracted when I met you as I had just asked about the bars, so sorry I wasn't more chatty.