Tuesday, June 24, 2008

June 21 and 22: Nutmeg State Games and Whaling City Cyclone

The Cyclonauts and CBRA hosted a full slate of races for the Nutmeg State Games on the bike racing loop in New Britain on Saturday. Pretty much every age group and category, men and women, was represented on the program and, as is customary these days, many of the more experienced riders chose to ride several races. For example, a 46 year old with a Category 3 license would qualify for the 45plus race, the 35plus race, the 30plus race, the cat 3 race and the Pro/1,2,3 race. This seems to have lead to the emergence of the 30plus race which was almost unheard of just a few years ago.

The pattern for the day was set by the entry level races (cat4/5) with some half-hearted break away attempts that were doomed to fail. This was repeated throughout the day in every race and it never worked but the very generous primes offered by the promoter kept riders trying to ride away throughout the day. For fields of over 100 riders, Rick Comshaw, the head of CBRA and the promoter of the race, offered 5 $100 primes. The masters 35+ and the Pro/1,2,3 both surpassed the century mark and therefore got the bonus primes. The Pro/1,2,3 even had a couple of extra $100 primes for a total over $700 and that is before anyone sprinted for the prize list.

The smooth course with no tight corners meant that small breakaways just couldn't get enough of an advantage to stay away. As nice as the course is, it’s about as close to being an oval as anything short of a track could be. Even some team tactics from the larger clubs could not spring riders off the front for any length of time.

Three women's races were contested at the same time (Pro/1,2,3, Cat 3 and Cat 4). The three could have been combined into one reasonably sized race, but given the disparate skill levels, the approach of separate fields was probably the right one as each group had enough women competitors to have a good race. However, it was inevitable that one or more of the groups would pass one of the others despite the 30 second gaps at the start. It was only a few laps before the Cat 4s, who started last of the three groups, caught and passed the Cat 3s. Through the confusion of races passing through each other, Sarah Schreib outsprinted Rebecca Wellons (NEBC) for the women's Pro/1,2 title.

In the featured men's race (Pro/1,2,3) a select group of five got away after the bulk of the primes were awarded. With so much cash on the line, nobody was allowed a long leash off the front until the last half of the race. The lead group built up a lead of as much as 20 seconds but never quite had the race firmly in their grasp. With about a 12 second gap going into the final lap, it looked good for the breakaway but by the time the field was visible on the back side of the course the lead had shrunk to just a few seconds. It looked like they would hold on for the final half mile and sprint for the top five places, especially with the speed increasing on the slight downhill on the second half of the course. But just 300 meters before the finish, the break was reeled in enough for Jake Keough, who had been keeping a low profile in his new Kelly Benefit Strategies team kit, bridged the final few meters to catch and then immediately pass the 5 leaders. No one else could match that move as the breakaway got 2nd through 6th places and the hard charging field settled the remaining places on the prize list with a very fast and furious sprint that covered most of the width of the road. After the race, Keough gave Robbie King credit for closing the gap as close as it got, allowing Keough to rocket across the gap and past the disappointed former race leaders. This was the third victory of the year for 21 year old Jake Keough and it came on the heels of his third place finish in the prestigious Harlem criterium the previous weekend against the very best professionals in the country. That placing apparently was the catalyst that lead to his new professional contract with the KBS team just a few days before the Nutmeg State Games. Their investment did not take long to pay off.

Sunday in New London, Conn. the Dime Bank Whaling City Cyclone was held on an entirely different kind of criterium course. At just over half the length (0.6 miles), the action came around quicker and the possibility of lapping the field came into play. The course was also much more technical with six tight corners and a gradual but long hill passing the start/finish line each lap. This gave those that were willing to try a breakaway a much better chance of success than in Saturday’s Race. And plenty did try it, often with great results.

There was a full slate of races except for the absence of a women’s race which race promoter Bill Humphries (aka the Bike Guy) says he plans to remedy for the second year of the race. In the feature race of the day, the Pro1/2/3, hometown hero Jeremy Powers, a professional with the Jelly Belly Team, raced in front of his home town fans and family. In fact his mom worked all day promoting Jelly Belly products (and her son) and dad ran the concessions from an ice cream truck. He makes a fine ham sandwich. But the rest of the field wasn’t going to let it be easy for Jeremy. Within just a few laps of the start, Gavin Mannion (Hot Tubes) and Robbie King (Rite Aid) took off from the front of the field and built a lead as they collected prime after prime. It certainly seemed like they were willing to work together in a smooth 2 man team time trial and forget about sprinting for the primes despite the considerable difference in size between the not yet full grown 17 year old Mannion and 6 foot plus King. As their lead grew, the cream of the crop in the rest of the field dashed off the front including Jeremy Powers, Mark McCormack (Fuji), and Austin Allison, an 18 year old all the way from Missouri. They were later joined by Jermaine Burrows (We Stand United Cycling ) and Alec Donahue (NERAC).

Mannion and King lapped the field and made their way to the front of it with several laps still remaining. Mark McCormack, not satisfied with racing for third place, decided to try to time trial away from Powers and Allison. At about the same time Donahue and Burrows made their move from the field to catch the break. As McCormack tried to catch the back of the field, Toby Stanton, the manager of Mannion’s Hot Tube team, told his other two riders in the race to go to the front and push the pedal all the way to the floor to ensure that the field’s pace would be too fast for McCormack to catch on. With help from Robbie King, they kept McCormack from getting any closer than 5 seconds back.

McCormack officially retired from professional racing before last season, but still seems to have most of his professional level of fitness. Maybe back in his Saturn or Colavita pro team days he would have made the final few meters of the chase, but when the field sped up, he was done and settled back into the now reformed group of 5.

King outsprinted Mannion (who had already won the junior’s race handily earlier in the day) for the finish while those around them contested 8th through 20th places on the prize list. A few seconds later the chase group finished with Jermaine Burrows taking the sprint starting from the last turn several hundred yards down the hill. Alec Donahue finished just ahead of Mark McCormack for 4th and 5th. Jeremy Powers cruised in just behind Austin Allison. By coincidence, Powers was the last rider to cross the finish line in his homecoming race, despite placing well in 7th.

After the race, Jeremy Powers and the other pros hung out and signed some autographs for the local fans and aspiring young racers from the host Mystic Velo Club. Cycling is unique in the way that fans get up close access to the pros before during and after competition and this was no exception. Hopefully this first year race will draw even more professionals and more fans in the years to come.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Heartache by the numbers, trouble by the score...

Bike racing is not an easy sport to become a part of. But for those that do find the sport and give it a go, it would be nice to see a few more succeed and stay with the sport. The following are my tips to help aspiring Cat 5 racers prosper and succeed. Keep in mind that I only advanced as far as Category 3 and never ever won a race myself. You should probably consult a real coach for real advice but, for what it's worth, here are my top 5 free tips for aspiring bike racers:

1 Racing a bike is supposed to hurt. Deep down inside, that is. Specific pains in specific places that you can point to with just one finger aren't supposed to happen and indicate a need to change something (saddle height, clothing, piercings). But that deep down all-over hurt is what the sport is all about. If your skin and everything inside it don't hurt during a race, either you are so good that you won the race, or you just didn't work hard enough trying.

But it's not all misery. The first couple of hundred yards of a race usually aren't too bad while your various nerve endings and your bike both get up to speed. Then there is usually a blissful minute or two between the time you reach full speed and when the pain messages reach the brain. But after that, plan on hurting to varying degrees until you have finished losing the race. This pain is often confused with suffering but I don't see it that way. Suffering is hurting while doing something you don't want to do, like being water boarded. Cycling is self inflicted masochistic hurting and you always have the option to stop, therefore it is just hurting, not suffering.

2 Start every race in the big ring, especially criteriums. The only exceptions are uphill time trials where you aren't going to be using the big ring for a while. Before your race starts, take a lap at close to racing speed and take note of the gear you are in. Racing speed in a flat short Cat 5 race is probably going to be around 26 mph. When you head for the start line, put your bike in a gear one or two gears easier than the gear you used at top speed (but still in the big ring). A gearing of 52 (or 53) in the front and 15-17 in the back should allow you to get up to speed without the rest of the field spinning away from you and it prevents you from having to switch chain rings from small to big when you are getting up to speed. That is always a risky shift under stress and could result in dropping the chain on the outside of the big chain ring. It would be a shame to have paid all that money for gas and entry fees just to drop your chain and lose the race in the first 50 meters.

3 If you hear the sound of scraping metal (or carbon fiber) on pavement behind you, don't look back. A bike race is not a freeway and gawking at carnage is not allowed. Just keep pedaling and looking up the road ahead. If you hear the sound of scraping metal in front of you, don't look at the source, look for the route that you can take to get around it. With or without the sound of scraping bicycles on pavement, you should always be looking past the rider in front of you, not at his/her back. That way you have extra time to react to any obstacles that the riders further in front have already encountered.

4 Don't ride further during each of the two days before a race than the distance of the race itself. But ride. Just take it easy. So if the race on Saturday is 15 miles long, Thursday and Friday's rides should be no longer than 15 miles each if you care at all about peaking for Saturday's race. A couple of quick intervals or sprints won't hurt, but you want your legs to be fresh for the race and you can't improve your fitness in two days, you can only maintain and maybe fine tune what you already have.

5. Arrive at each race not less than one hour before the posted start time. You are going to need the full hour, probably more, to get prepared. Make sure you get a good warm up. Start with some spinning, then stretch a bit, then get back on the bike and do a couple of tough intervals. Go anaerobic once or twice while warming up because the first time is the worst (see item 1 above about pain) and you don't want that to be during the race. A good warm up will make the race feel easier. Real coaches may or may not agree, but I always felt that this warm up routine helped me.

Bonus: For someone with no real qualifications as a coach, I seem to have a lot of advice. Since I never was much good at racing, I have no idea if the advice is any good or not. Take it with a grain of salt or use the Costanza Principle and do exactly the opposite if you want to. But anyway, here's one more:

The more you make it hurt during training, the more speed and power you will be able to generate at the same pain level during racing. Don't make the mistake of thinking that really good high intensity training will make racing any less painful, it will just make it possible to generate more power and speed for the same pain level. I suspect quite a few first time racers are not prepared for the variability of the effort required. Racing is not a steady state activity, there are times of super high peak intensity and times of just regular high intensity and you need to be able to keep up with both. So, simply touring for miles and miles at a comfortable level of intensity won't prepare you for Cat 5 racing. The best preparation for racing, especially criteriums, is high intensity riding - intervals, hill repeats, and sprints. Do a few of each every week and you will improve quickly. The good news is you don't have to spend countless hours on the bike (unless you want to).