First things first. I’m really in love with my bike, and I’m so happy to be at the point where I can’t wait to ride, where I’m excited to get my ass kicked by fast boys, where I’m getting my money’s worth and then some with my recent investment.
Also, I’m the proud owner of these lovely things:There was a reason for this purchase (other than retail therapy, which I never say no to), and that is a relatively recent series of pains related to my bike fit. That’s probably a story for another post, but suffice to say that I’ve moved my saddle all around and bought new shoes so I can have a different cleat position for my road bike than I have on the Sidis worn with the TT bike. Logical, yes? I thought so.
Anyway, I also raced last weekend. The All American Road Race in Poolesville, Md. is a local event for us. We ride the roads out there all the time. I thought it’d be a good option for me because I could preview the specific course loop (which I did — twice), race close to home and be back by late morning, and ride with a huge group from my team. The women’s race was open, which meant that all levels would be riding together, though with Cat4 scored separately. And after dipping my toe into this pool at Jeff Cup, AARR seemed like the place to maybe wade in up to my knees.
As it turns out, Poolesville is not close to downtown D.C. Not even a little bit. Even when we ride out there, it doesn’t seem to take all that long. I figured I could get there in a half hour, especially early on a Saturday morning. Nope. Even if I hadn’t stupidly chosen the slow drive-through-Georgetown way, it still would have been a long drive. So I rolled into the grass field doubling as the parking and staging areas with what seemed like very little time to spare before our scheduled start. But, it also turns out that the steps required to get to the line of a bike race are pretty minimal, and everything is so low-key that it’s almost impossible to feel rushed. If I arrived at a triathlon 25 minutes before the start, I’d be panicking (ahem) about setting up transition, picking up my number, getting my wetsuit on, etc. But I felt like I had all the time in the world. Maybe this is due to the fields being spread out over the course of the day instead of taking off just minutes apart like swim waves would, which means that there aren’t any lines to wait in. Or the fact that all you need is you and your bike and associated items, not a truckload of gear. Or maybe it’s just an attitude adjustment I’ve made. In either case, I like it.
So for this particular race, there were three fields on the course at a time. The Cat5 men started 10 minutes ahead of us and would ride two laps for a total of 16 miles. We were riding five laps for 40 miles. The Cat5 masters (also men) would start a bit after us and ride two laps. So two groups would start and finish while we were in the middle of our race. If they were crash-happy or particularly slow (or fast, I guess), we’d end up in a huge messy pile and someone would end up getting stopped and neutralized.
No need to bore you with the play-by-play of the day outside of a few observations. The course was rolling with one short descent and one or two sort-of climbs, but it was not challenging enough to splinter the field. The refs were quite serious about trying to enforce the center line rule (you can only ride on the right side of the road, regardless of whether a line is painted on the pavement or not, so your judgment and that of the motor ref has to match), and on the narrow rural roads this made advancing in a larger group very difficult. We were also riding at a pretty glacial pace with the exception of random surges out of corners and on the hills, which is really hard to manage if you’re sitting at the back — which I was. In the end, one of my teammates made the winning break with one other rider and took second overall and first for Cat4 — though she had an upgrade pending and now (I believe) is a Cat3. Another won the pack sprint and took second for Cat4, and the rest of us survived with the super-squirrely group to make it to the line in one piece. I was 10th for Cat4, which in the grand scheme of things is neither here nor there. More importantly, I am continuing to learn a shit-ton about racing and riding in general:
1. Positioning is the name of the game. For both races I’ve done, I’ve started at the back. For whatever reason, I feel safer there because I can choose to leave space between my wheel and those in front of me and therefore have a cushion to react with my brakes. This is ridiculous. Riding last wheel means you do more work to deal with the surges made from the front. It puts you at risk of getting stuck behind (or involved in) crashes. It means you can’t react to breakaways. It requires a lot of strategy to get to the front of a group that’s crammed into a small area and doesn’t really care to have you move up. I am strong enough to sit in the middle or even toward the front in a Cat4-only race, and at some point soon I want to go after the win. This problem was particularly apparent in the sprint, in which the group never really got moving, a lot of people sat up before the line, and several people sort of veered off to the side. It felt dangerous to be behind all of this. The post-race advice from a teammate went something like “Get in front, stay in front.” Yes.
2. I am too polite. Related to the above, bike racing is not a friendly sport. In a triathlon (and a running race, to a degree), you do a lot of “great job!” and “keep it up!” when fellow athletes go by. In cycling, you have to fight for yourself. I have been told more than a few times that I need to pick a wheel in front of me (preferably a fast one) and stick to it and not let anyone steal it. Because I feel like I don’t really belong with all of these experienced riders, I tend to let them bump me out of the way. As a result, I do a lot of half-wheeling, which is all kinds of bad. But I’ve learned that if there’s a gap between you and the person in front of you, someone is going to jump in. I can’t let that happen, or I’ll spend all of my time stuck at the back. See above.
In addition to the stealing of wheels, there’s a fair amount of yelling that goes on during races. I don’t know whether this is a girl thing, but I need to be more aware of what gets said and what it means for race strategy. Not saying I need to yell too — but when I get to the start line, the Southern belle needs to be replaced by the aggressive bitch I have deep down inside.
3. Team coordination actually matters. This is the cool thing you see happening when you watch pro races, but I’ve never been quite sure how riding as a team would apply in a local amateur event. While the field as a whole couldn’t get it together to chase the break at this race (which was fine from our point of view, since NCVC was in the break from the start), several of the teams did try to control the field. Whether it was fair or legal or whatever is still a little bit unclear, but I do think that having a cohesive strategy rather than leaving your riders scattered throughout the group should in theory lead to better results. I heard a couple of teams talking through their plans before and during the race and watched them at least try to get organized. I know the guys do this pretty well — and it makes me want to learn how to be the ones with the leadout train at the end.
4. Sometimes, the rules suck. Like I mentioned above, the center line rule was heavily enforced, but what that really meant was that riders were being warned over and over and relegated to the back of the pack, which in our field meant they had to lose about five places and then just work their way right back up, probably crossing the line again. Part of the challenge was the width of the road. I get that, and I’d rather we have the whole damn space. But it is annoying if you’re following the rules to see other riders improve their position by breaking said rules. There were a lot of complaints about this after every race throughout the day — that officials weren’t being strict enough in DQ-ing people. Little-known fact: I’m actually a licensed USAC official in addition to a racer, so I think I get the challenge and frustration on both sides. But I guess either enforce the rule or don’t? No half-assing it.
5. I have major form issues. Ditto skills. I know this already, and pictures confirm it. I look like an idiot on my bike. I don’t corner well — for some reason, it’s much easier for me to lean and turn left, so I always end up with my inside pedal down on right turns. This could be disastrous if it’s too sharp and my foot hits the ground. I have zero idea of how to sprint. I can only stand out of the saddle if I’m climbing, and even then I prefer to sit. I really don’t like riding in my drops at all, mostly because I have no practice doing so. I end up shooting off the back and having to catch up after every corner because I take them slowly. I have to hope we turn into a hill so I can pick people off that way. Part of the reason I give up wheels is that I’m afraid of being bumped. I know there are a lot of people on my team who can help me fix this. And now I realize that cycling isn’t just about putting your head down and riding fast — like swim/bike/run, you also have to have the basic skills to be more efficient. Duh.
So with all of this in mind, I’m just going to keep on keeping on. Because riding my bike makes me happy, and I need to just be happy for awhile.