Steep Learning Curve
Today is my first USA Cycling sanctioned criterium, followed the following day by a USAC road race. I entered them both, partly out of curiosity and partly out of sheer ignorance. “Ignorance” in the sense of lack of knowledge, not stupidity – though the latter may prove to be more accurate. The Santa Catalina Omnium for me will be a 30 minute criterium and a 57 mile road race with points awarded for finishes and combined for the overall results. Sunday is billed as “Arizona’s hardest road race.”
I have ridden a lot of charity rides, some with 8,000+ other riders and I have entered a few Gran Fondos too. Centuries, metric centuries and a few hillclimbs dot my checkered past in cycling, but I have never gone elbow to elbow with others amped up to win on the road. I’ve done countless mountain bike races and have had some successes in those competitions. Mountain bike racers are a different breed however, especially at the amateur level. We laugh and tell jokes at the start line, and practically send formal, light-hearted requests when we want to pass on singletrack. The soundtrack of a mountain bike race resounds with friendly “On your lefts” and “go for it bros.” I once had a young gun that started in the wave after mine, slide in behind me, and in the nicest tone possible say, “Any time you’re ready sir, you can let me by.” Sir? I want to meet that kid’s parents! Sir? With a single word, I felt suddenly ancient.
Part of the reason for this niceness stems from the nature of the race course. We all love singletrack and race promoters often proudly announce the number or percentage of singletrack miles. So when someone blisters in behind and is clearly faster, letting him or her by makes sense; and we can get back to enjoying the singletrack ride, or marveling at the madness of the one we graciously let storm past.
But riding in a pack, curb to curb at breakneck speed on pavement, surrounded by others intent to stay upright and upfront is a race horse of a different color. There’s so much going on and required of racing in close quarters. Much of it I only know from watching it and occasionally riding it in a fast Fondo or group ride. Staying on wheels, avoiding that dreaded, Paul Sherwin “touch of wheels,” not getting dropped, avoiding the dropped bottle, riding on the rivet just to stay in contact with the group is just not a part of mountain bike racing. There are unspoken rules in the peloton – things you never do and things you must. Aggressively guarding your place on the road and in the group is a natural part of road racing.
I don’t doubt there are nice, respectful boys in the bunch, but I don’t expect I will hear many “Sirs” this weekend. I don’t know what to expect on the final lap of the criterium. I have never had my bike handling and legs tested in an honest to goodness field sprint. I’ve never raced through a feed zone. Never desperately tried to stay on someone’s wheel in desperate hopes that the pack will slow down a bit before my legs catch fire. Never ridden in a race without a pump and tube and lever and multi-tool and patch kit and the skills to fix it myself. Never broken a collar bone. And so much more.
Road racing is for grownups. I’m 58, and feel like it’s long past the time that I do some growing up on the bike. Like later this morning.