Early in my cycling career in the late 80's I bought a cyclocross bike to use for training on the dirt roads around Boise in the winter. As the mountain bike trail system developed in the foothills above town, I ventured onto the single track on the cross bike. Although mountain bikes became popular during this time, I resisted them, continuing to ride the skinny-tired bike on more and more technical terrain. Hell, I was a telemark skier, too. I thought it was cool doing things the hard way. Eventually, some time after front suspension came into the picture, I succumbed to the goadings of my fat-tired peers and bought one of the early Stumpjumpers with a Rock Shock.
The first thing I noticed was how fast I could go. And what I realized soon thereafter was how much closer to the edge of disaster I could get without realizing it. I crashed hard a few times as I explored the limits of this new machine but, thankfully, never got hurt. In fact, one of my favorite things about mountain biking back then was how hard you could wipe out without losing much skin. Very forgiving stuff, that dirt. Of course, I managed to never plow into a rock! But generally, it was much more forgiving than sliding along the pavement with nothing between you and the ground but a thin layer of Lycra, something that happens from time to time in road cycling.
Well, this past weekend, a couple of teammates and I headed to warm Salt Lake City to get some speed work in at the Utah State Criterium Championships. Now, driving to Salt Lake for a crit violates the standard drive time to race time ratio but we justified the outing by signing up for two different races. We would do the category event and the master's event. For me, that entailed the 35+ race for 45 minutes followed by the Pro, 1,2 race about an hour later for the tune of 90 minutes. Now, 90 minutes is a long time to be going around in circles with a bunch of fit guys half your age trying to rip your legs off. I wasn't totally psyched by the idea but it seemed the best thing to do for the training I needed. But first I had to deal with the race against my peers, the "warm-up," I guess.
We had a nice, tidy group of 20-30 guys and I was able to line up in the front. The gun went off and I had a clean clip-in to my pedal and I sprinted off the line. For whatever reason, the boys let me go and suddenly I was alone around the first corner. I typically do not advocate silly, energy-sucking moves like that, especially when you lack a huge motor like I do but there I was. So, just for shits and grins, I put my head down and went for it….for awhile. The laps started ticking away and it was fun to hear the announcer say my name each time through. Don't get that too often. A prime soon came up for grabs and I took that. I briefly fantasized about lapping the field after I got a full straightaway gap but the legs soon loaded up and I realized that I should settle down and see if anyone would come up. I also had the next race in the back of my mind, knowing that I would be doomed there if I punched all my fun tickets here.
A small group and then the pack soon arrived and we were back to racing again. A couple of guys boldly took risks near the end and held a gap to the finish. Nice work for them. A small group of us headed into the final lap without any one rider committing to the effort knowing we were racing for third. I hung back waiting for the corner into the third straightaway figuring that the sprint should start there since it was only 75 meters to the finish after the last corner. If you had the lead there, you were going to win the sprint. I punched it into the stiffening headwind, dove into the last corner, screaming at some lapped riders like a maniac and crossed the line uncontested for third.
After a recovery drink and a little food at the hotel, I headed back for the main beat down of the day. Shit, there were a slough of fast guys there and the field was probably 50 deep or more. I was scared. I mean, who was I kidding?These guys were real Cat. 1's and 2's, some of whom had already done NRC races this year. The only reason my license says Cat. 2 on it is because that's what it said in 1995 when I really WAS a 2. Nobody at USA Cycling bothered to make the proper adjustment when I decided to buy another license after 10 years away from the scene. The last time I did a 90 minute criterium was probably at the Washington Trust Classic back in 1990. Oh boy!
So, the gun goes off, I get a decent start and am in the top 10 for the first lap or two. The fireworks start, constant attacking and counter-attacking like you would expect from this field. I'm following wheels and bridging gaps. I drift back to top 20, or so and simply pay attention. I get a feel for whom to follow, who will close gaps in front of me, and whom I should just go around if it opens up in front of them. The 3-man break gets away and things settle down. My heart rate finally drops and I start feeling comfortable and more confident. I'm not seeing the wind much but just playing the game, trying to be safe and keeping it upright. We lost at least a third of the pack to attrition so I was doing better than those guys. The laps started taking their toll but it seemed it did for the others as well. The counter-attacks were not as sustained and I was able to recover after each one.
As we counted down the laps to the finish, I started thinking about my positioning and giving it a real go for a good placing. I was able to move up a couple of guys each lap and battled to hold my spot in the line. On the last lap it got a little pushy but I simply flared my elbows and pushed back. We got through the sketchy second corner that had been the scene of many crashes during the day and I figured we were home free. I hit out hard on the third straight, passing several riders. I dropped it into the 12 cog just before the final turn thinking that maybe I could get one or two more before the line. That would be sweet! Well, just as I slammed it into the apex of the final turn, a guy just in front laid it down, sliding into the curb. Oh shit! I thought I might be able to get inside him but when he hit the curb he bounced back into my line. Suddenly, I was airborne at 30 mile per hour. My last thought as I sailed over him was inspired by the view below me. It was dirt and I was about to eat shit into a planter! Hmmm…maybe this won't be so bad after all. Ground reaction force time. So, I burn in with my left shoulder and then slam my head into the ground coming to a stop in a cloud of dust. My first thought was that I had broken my neck. Boy, did I ever ring my bell!
After a moment or two, someone ran up to me and told me to stay down, you know, spine precautions and all that. Well, that's what I do for a living and after sensing that it was my head that hurt and not my neck as much, I sat up. Everything hurt a bit but nothing crazy. A few guys ran by attending to the other casualties, checking on me on the way by and I said that I thought I was okay. I stumbled a bit when I stood but soon got my bearings. After a minute or two, I assessed the bike. Wheels fine, shifters clogged with dirt but functional, handlebars tweaked but serviceable…no real damage. Damn, there's that blessed dirt! You gotta love it. Looking at the ding on my shoulder and my broken helmet, it scares me to imagine what shape I'd be in if I had suffered the same fall on pavement. Not so lucky, me thinks.
Man, it would have been nice to get a top ten in a race like that. Performing as well as I did certainly gives me some confidence to keep doing what I'm doing with my preparation. The one bonus of the weekend was that, during my fall, I ripped half my cleat off my shoe and broke the spring on my Speedplay pedal. I was thinking about replacing those cleats. The prize for my third place finish was a $35 gift certificate to Binghams Cyclery. Sweet! My new cleats cost only $7 and a spectacular crash in the dirt. I guess I will survive to fight another day. - Brian