Super Spring Criterium, April 5th, South Beloit
The butterflies started hitting me as early as Friday afternoon before this event. I'm not sure if it was just because it was the first races of the year, or because my unspectacular finish to the 2013 season was taxing my confidence. At the last crit practice before this race, my inability to corner aggressively was allowing huge gaps to open between me and the wheel I was on, which took a lot out of my legs and eventually led to me being dropped after only 4 or 5 laps. We specifically worked on that corner after the practice race and I improved somewhat by watching how the more talented riders on the team handled the corner. I went out on my own two days later to continue working on pedaling through tight corners, and made even more improvement. In terms of fitness, I felt confident about where I was at, but my bike handling abilities were a big question mark going into race day. To make things worse, the Super Spring fields are always maxed out, so handling ability in a pack would be very important.
I was registered for the Category 4/5, Masters 30+ 4/5, and the Category 4, which made me a big hit at the registration table, even though I told them I would probably only be doing 2. The last 2 races were back to back for a combined 85 minutes of racing, which I didn't expect to have in my legs this early.
Category 4/5: 22nd of 75
Last year in this race I got 50th of 75 and I specifically remember it being much harder than the cat 5 race, even though many people had said there's no difference between Cat 5 and 4. I knew with a packed field of 75, positioning would be very important. Even though the turns are wide, there's still a significant accordian effect and crashes still happen. I was able to get a spot on the front line, fumbled for my pedal once on the start, then got clipped in and charged to the front 10 spots where I held my position for a long time. At the end of the second lap, I saw the day's first attack about to be reeled in and decide to start party time by launching a counter attack. As I passed the front, out of the saddle, I heard a guy yell to a teammate "better go with that one!" It's nice to have your attacks respected like that, but I laughed to myself a little as I knew I was just screwing around and trying to wake my legs up. Unfortunatley they didn't let me get away and I settled back in. I attacked again on lap 3, got reeled in, then attempted to bridge a gap to a breakaway. I got halfway there and then realized I was finally getting tired. I sunk back about 30 riders before I nestled into a big draft and recovered for about half a lap. Once recovered, I charged all the way back to the front with one big effort and stayed there for the rest of the race. When the lap card said 2 to go, I started thinking about the finish, but what I didn't notice was that when we crossed the line with what should have been 1 to go, the bell didn't ring and the lap card still said 2. I crossed the false-finish in the top 20, watched the supposed winner raise his arms and start to celebrate, then realized the bell was ringing with "1" showing on the card. It took a huge burst of willpower to start hammering again when I was completely spent from sprinting for nothing, but I held my position and crossed the line in 22nd, happy to be in the top 3rd after spending energy like it grew on trees.
Masters 30+ Category 4/5: 13th of 63
This time we had a slightly smaller field of 63 and I was able to start on the 2nd row. With no hiccups on the clip-in, I went right to the top 5 and was happy to sit on wheels and save energy. I couldn't stop thinking about how easy the races felt this year compared to last year. In the past, I never got the opportunity to make decisions about whether or not to attack, sit in, move up, bridge the gap, etc. Every morsel of gas I had went into just hanging onto my position. This year, better fitness and cornering ability was allowing me to leave lots of energy to make more decisions and mix the race up. I only attacked once this race, about halfway through, with the intent of bringing a few XXX riders with me. They had an army of strong riders, so I thought if I could bring one along in a breakaway, I could be their adopted child and benefit from the efforts of their solid team tactics to block the field. As I attacked, I got a small gap and looked over my shoulder a few times to broadcast my intentions. I heard one of the the guys say "He wants us to go with him!" Duh... Well, they didn't, so I sank back into the field with no intent of going solo. I got stuck on the front for a little, so a gradually slowed, and slowed, and slowed, until someone attacked. I went with this breakaway attempt of 7 other guys, but unfortunatley no one wanted to work from the beginning, so we sank back yet again. After that, I knew we were destined for another field sprint. As if on cue, Phil Fleugel from Michael's Cycles in Janesville, WI rolled up next to me. He won a race at this event last year, so I grabbed his wheel and started setting up for the sprint. On the headwind backstretch before the final turn, everyone got excessively jumpy. I took a big hit from someone that sent me swerving to the left, and lost Phil's wheel in the process. After that, I was boxed in and moving backwards heading into turn 7. I rounded the corner aggressively and jumped out of the saddle immediately to separate myself from the mess of bodies knocking into each other. Once I was out of danger, I sat back down and accellerated as hard as I could until I was down in the 50x11, then I jumped again and continued to gobble up positions until I crossed the line in 13th, one second behind winner Phil Fleugel, whose wheel I was on just 45 seconds prior...*sigh*
Overall it was a good day. Last year I was 33/50 in the 5's and 50/75 in the 4/5, so this year marked a fantastic improvement and is hopefully a sign of a good season to come. Most important is that I really enjoyed racing again. The end of 2013 was a trainwreck: crashed out of Homewood, dropped and pulled from Edwardsville and Bloomington, and finishing off the back in Belleville. I'll always have bad days here and there, but 4 in a row was tough to stomach. Hopefully that cold streak will stay in the past.