Give me forty

April 1, 2014 § 21 Comments

On the last day of the San Dimas Stage Race I hurried to the line. The ref read our last rites, blew the whistle, and off we went, careening through six turns, a modest incline, and a screaming downhill that dumped into a 90-degree turn onto the finishing stretch.

My goal was simple: earn another DNC crown to go with the string of them I’d won in every crit now since the Dana Point Grand Prix in 2008, when a lummox clipped one of the steel barriers on the left and started a pachinko cascade of bikes, wheels, screaming idiots, and soft-cartilage-and-bone smearing along the pavement at 30 mph. “DNC,” by the way, stands for Did Not Crash.

Downtown San Dimas was an idyllic place to race. The start/finish was packed with spectators. The town was charming. The weather was perfect. Nothing could possibly go wrong, and in fact nothing did until the last turn on the last lap, when things not only went wrong, they went horribly wrong while slinging ass downhill at 40 mph some dude on the BonkBreaker team took the hard right hander a bit too hard and wound up splaying himself against the barricades, crashing out Steve Klasna in a great glorious finale of crunching, smashing, cursing, and opprobrium.

This of course is the price of trying to win bicycle races. You must take chances. Those chances will not always pan out. When they do not, you will pay with skin and gristle and purple scars that you can point to years later, grotesquely, as you pull up your pant cuff and itemize the scars to queasy-looking coworkers at the water cooler. This is generally a day or two prior to the time you get your termination notice, assuming you have a job, which of course as a self-respecting masters pro bike racer, you don’t.

You know you’re in trouble when the liberal arts major is calling you out for your bad math

I knew that by skulking in the rear, sitting up long before the sprunt, and letting Troy Huerta madly dash by to beat me for 46th place, I would almost certainly earn another DNC crown, and I did. What caught me unawares was the announcement “One lap to go!” and the Pavlovian shark attack that ensued when they rang the bell lap.

It caught me by surprise because I checked my watch and noted that they had rung the bell at about 32 minutes into the race, meaning that we finished our 40-minute event in about 34 minutes. Nor was it the first time that a masters race had been shorted. In fact, it’s a tradition at virtually all SoCal crits to hear the bell lap five minutes shy, sometimes more, of the scheduled forty or forty-five minute race.

The rationale, of course, is that it’s better to end the race a few minutes early than a few minutes late — better for the promoter, that is. The inanity of a 35-minute crit for the 45+ racers (and incredibly, for the 35+ racers as well) was shown on the course itself. With a star-studded field of truly great racers, the peloton averaged over 28 mph for the entire race. The 35′s averaged over 29. In other words, it wasn’t a bike race. It was a drag race.

Forget tactics. The strongmen kept the foot on the gas for the entire time, ramped up a lead out train at the end, and awarded the spoils to the flat-out fastest guy in the field. In our race that was Bill Harris. In the 35′s it was Charon Smith.

And although those two guys can win any crit of any length, it greatly diminishes the racing element of the event when it’s set up to be so short that there isn’t even a mathematical possibility of a breakaway. Why not just make it two laps? Thirty-five minutes isn’t long enough to make a dent in the big engines, and it’s not long enough to create the pauses that lead to attacks, breakaways, and the thrill of, you know, tactical bike racing.

 Don’t blame the promoters, they voted for McGovern

Of course the real illness is the proliferation of categories. Promoters only have a limited amount of time to close off downtown or to occupy an office park. Many crits have as many eleven categories, without even providing kiddy races or junior racing events. Dana Point in 2014 has thirteen events beginning at 7:50 … and no junior races, either. The Cat 5′s and the 30+ 4/5′s race an absurd — yes, absurd — twenty minutes.

The attraction of multiple categories for promoters is maximal entry fees. The attraction for the bicycle riders is the illusory hope of a trinket. The victim is the sporting event itself, where the spectators are virtually guaranteed to witness a mass gallop finish every single time. Is that fun to watch? Hell, yes! Who doesn’t want to watch Charon out-kick a hundred guys in the last 200 yards so that it looks like a greyhound racing a bunch of pet rocks?

But we don’t need to stand around baking our brains in the hot sun to watch an outcome that will be the same whether the race lasts forty minutes or four.

Also … don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. Unless it’s also raining.

When the flyer advertises a 40-minute or 50-minute race, then the promoter should run a race for the advertised length, the same as when a gas station advertises gas for 4.15 a gallon: it means a gallon, not 3.75 quarts.

If, because I’m old and slow, I only deserve forty minutes of competition, don’t short me on my lousy forty minutes unless you’re prepared to welcome me back to the registration table and refund my money. Five minutes hacked out of a 40-minute race is 12.5%, and for a $35 entry fee, that’s $4.37 that just got lifted out of my back pocket. In real terms, that’s half a six-pack of Racer 5 IPA.

Of course the simplest solution is the worst one. Make the races longer and decrease the number of events. Maybe the sport would be more exciting if my precious 50+ category and all the other sandbagger categories got axed, leaving us with longer, more exciting events for six or seven categories of genuinely fast people who had the legs to race a technical crit like San Dimas or Dana Point for an hour or more. Maybe lengthier, tougher courses would produce, better, tougher racers.

Or maybe not. Maybe without a 30+4/5, a 50+, or a 65+ category the sport would just dry up and blow away. You know, like it has in Europe.

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Diving for the gap

March 29, 2014 § 11 Comments

The 50-mile road race in San Dimas started at 7:50 AM.

The day began by charging into narrow spaces, skittering across the road avoiding insane people who were trying to crash me out, slamming on the brakes to avoid instant death, crazy accelerations to pass the clotted clump of confused obstacles in my way, screeching around potholes, racing into crowded turns, tense hands clenched in a death grip, and barely avoiding being rammed from behind … and that was just on the freeway driving to the race.

As I stood in line waiting to sign in, I couldn’t help but marvel at the wonderful volunteers who had gotten up at dark-thirty in order to help make this event happen. Unpaid, smiling, and happy to lend a hand, they had to wait a few minutes until the race organizers provided them with the sign-in sheets. While 50 or 60 riders waited patiently in line, the biggest prick-ass prima donna from the South Bay began loudly criticizing the volunteers.

“Where are the sign-in sheets? This isn’t right!” he bitched. “I have to get ready! Where’s my sign-in sheet?”

Everyone looked surprised at this amazing display of douchebaggery until they recognized who it was, then they shrugged. “Oh, it’s him. Again.”

Strategy is key

The SPY-Giant-RIDE team boasted 37 riders in a field of 23, so before the race we huddled to plan how we would wrest control from PAPD (prick-ass prima donna) even though our best placed rider was so far back we needed a calculator, sextant, and sundial to figure out the time difference.

“If we get all three time bonuses, then win first, second, and third, conquer the field with a breakaway that puts thirty minutes on the peloton, and the rest of the riders get swallowed in a giant sinkhole, there’s a slight chance we could get on the podium,” one of our riders said. “Absent that, we’re hosed.”

As each loyal rider asked what role he could play, duties were explained.

“Hit it hard on lap two. Keep the pace hard, so that PAPD has to work. He’s only human.”

“Define human!” one rider demanded.

One of the other team leaders chimed in. “We’re going to have to ride the front and go with constant attacks. Stay towards the fore and as soon as there’s a lull, launch. Make them chase.”

Everyone agreed to give it their best and to use our superior numbers to put the rest of the field in difficulty.

After the team huddle I pulled Dandy and Mongo aside. “Look, wankers,” I said. “Fuck that shit. We gott execute Sub-plan B.”

“Sub-plan B?” asked Dandy. “What’s that?”

“It’s simple. This race is packed with guys who will devour us whole. Team Leader told us to ‘ride the front.’ Dude, that’s where the pain is. The only thing that will happen at the front is bad. Screw the team. We gotta survive. So, Sub-plan B has two steps: 1-Cower. 2-Hide.”

They mulled it over. “Doesn’t that make us weasly non-team player traitorous dickweeds?” asked Dandy.

“Yes,” I said. “But it also means we have a chance of finishing and not getting dropped on the very first lap.”

“What do you calculate the chance?” asked Mongo.

“One in half a billion.”

Their faces brightened at the possibility. “We’re in!” they said in unison.

Planning the work, working the plan

Although I hadn’t told them, Sub-plan B had an ulterior motive: protect my 31st placing. It would take a whole crew of sub-par wankers working together to keep me in thirty-first, but with Mongo and Dandy committed to the strategy, I knew it might work.

“Anyway,” I told them as we rolled out, “chill at the back. The first lap is going to be a warm-up effort anyway, nothing crazy.”

Within minutes we were all on the rivet, struggling to hang onto the poisonous tail of the swinging whip as the maddened peloton charged up a grade that felt steeper than the interest rate on a payday loan. I struggled over the top, gassed. “Jon!” I shouted over to my teammate who was in his first race back after having a full hip replacement. He’d ridden less than thirty miles in the last six months, yet was easily keeping up with the murderous pace. “That was the big climb, right?”

He gave me a funny look. “Climb? No, dude. That’s just a roller. When we hit the climb, you’ll know it.”

I slinked to the back and hung on for dear life. Far too soon we hit the actual climb, and as Jon had predicted, it was unambiguous. I’ve felt worse and gone harder and done more intense efforts, but they all involved being chased, caught, and beaten by my older brother and his friends.

Dandy and Mongo were fine. “Kind of fast for a warm-up, though,” said Mongo as six or seven fatty tuna riders got chucked out the back.

As the pack shrank the pace never let up. Each time we neared the top of the climb we had to go over fifty feet of faux cobbles that were really nothing more than little bricks with cracks in between. The shaking and jarring that attended each passage was intense, and I could only think about how pathetic this was compared to the European races where the cobbles are actual cobbles, the climbs go on for a kilometer or more, and the weather is often cold and wet and miserable.

By the fifth lap the pack was much reduced and I barely struggled over the climb. The sixth time over I popped, along with Mongo and Fireman. The final lap we rode together in a smooth and professional paceline, with me sitting on the back and shouting instructions. “Go faster! Pedal harder! Give me some food!” etc.

Celebration

Thanks to their ability to follow my instructions, we made the time cut, then dashed off to Eureka Burgers to enjoy a jalapeño and egg cheeseburger with fries and four or five double IPA’s. I don’t remember exactly what happened after that, but I woke up under a tent several hours later as a concerned teammate kept saying, “Are you okay? Are you okay?”

I mumbled that I was, which was excellent because it was just in time for our pre-race strategy for the final day of the stage race, a 40-minute crit over a twisty, technical course.

“Okay guys, listen up,” said Team Leader. “Tomorrow everyone’s going to be tired after three days of hard racing.” Then he looked pointedly at me. “And some of us were tired, or appeared to be tired, before the race even started.” He looked at me some more. “But we have to use our superior numbers in the crit.”

Assistant Team Leader chimed in. “Yeah. The weak-ass flailers, er, I mean, uh, the lower-placed GC riders need to go to the front early on.” He looked at me as I pretended to be asleep again. “Wanky! You and Mongo and Dandy can do something tomorrow to justify all the eyewear and kits and discount swag for once in your sorry lives by taking a fuggin’ pull. Got that?”

“Who? Me?” I said.

The team turned on me in unison. “YEAH! YOU!”

“Aw, c’mon guys,” I pleaded. “I couldn’t do anything today. My feet hurt. My legs were sore. I cramped. I ran out of salt tablets. I had a vanishing twin. My wheels were out of true. It was an herbal tea. My meat was tainted. I didn’t have the right warm-up. I’m not good at fast descents. My taint was meated. I’m a slow climber. Beer.”

They had already returned to the strategic discussion, but at least I had my marching orders.

Take. A. Pull.

To me, that sounded mighty singular. As usual, when tomorrow rolls around, I’ll be all in. Maybe. Unless I’m not.

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