I’ve started 4 races now as a category 3 racer. I’ve learned a few things. Here are the highlights in bullet format:
• Cat 3 races are tougher than Cat 4 races.
• Cat 3 racers are MUCH cooler than you. Especially if you wish to speak to another cat 3 racer during a race.
• You (ok, I) can’t win a cat 3 race while making stupid mistakes (unlike in a cat 4 race, when you – I – can kind of come back from them).
So how did the race go? Let me tell you.
O’Fallon hosted the state championship road race. Typically, this has been my worst race of the year. I say typically because I’ve only raced the state RR twice previously, and I’ve crashed once and almost quit once. My first attempt at State road racing glory was way way back in 2007 – my first race ever. I finished 13th in fact. Out of 17. I got dropped at the end of the first of 2 laps, turned around, and headed for the car until a friend who got dropped before me, found me and talked me into riding it out. I passed 2 more guys to get that 13th finish. Maybe it wasn’t that bad then. In 2008 I returned to the road race, this time in Oak Brook, but unlike the late gain in placements from 2007, I was sitting 2nd wheel about 300-500 meters from the line. The rider in front of me pulled off to the right, taking out my front wheel, and about 10 of us hit the deck. My first crash in a race. Sadly, my teamates and I were stacked 3 or 4 deep in the top 10 going into that crash. None of us came out of it in the top ten. With the background out of the way…
The O’Fallon course was a 22.5 mile loop over a mix of terrain. I wouldn’t call it rolling, nor flat, just a hodgepodge. There were some headwind sections, but the wind was pretty tame at a sub 10mph breeze. There were (if memory serves) 3 climbs of note on the course, each taking between 10 and 40 seconds to complete. Clearly, sprinter’s climbs. However, this course was to be run 3 times in the cat 3 race. At 67 miles, it is the longest race of the season for me (by 9 miles!). And we all know what happened last time I was in a long, semi-hilly road race.
We rolled out with about 50 combatants under hot and humid conditions. The pace was pedestrian, and it was clear a lot of guys were thinking something similar to me: 67 miles - 3 laps – is a long way, better sit in for a while. That’s just what I did. Sit in the top 20 or so guys and keep an eye up the road for trouble. Trouble found me anyway on that first lap, at about 30 minutes in. Going into a sharp left hander, I felt my front tire give. I was about to lean into the turn fully when this sensation registered, so I immediately yelled “flat!” and went straight through the turn into a gravel shoulder. By the time the pack had passed me, I had already taken the front wheel out and was waving it franticly at the wheel truck. Hooray for spare wheels. I fished my spare out of the truck, and asked for a free lap. After a small push from the driver (on foot) I was chasing the pack. Free lap denied. So much for saving energy the first two laps! I was pretty fresh at this point, but in the heat and starting from a dead stop at the base of the 2nd longest climb - I was pegged pretty quick. I just held a hard pace until I could see the back of the pack. As I got closer I could see my teamate Nick tailgunning it, waiting for me to get close enough and then he’d lend a hand. There was no sense in him taking himself out of the race if I wasn’t strong enough to get back in it, yet he was ready to help me out. Quite the class move. After about 10 minutes of hard riding I got a break in his draft and we traded pulls for a few more minutes until we were back on. I immediately began working my way forward as the accordian effect would surely sap all ability to recover.
It turns out that Nick wasn’t as fresh as I thought. He told me later that he had crashed in a corner after I had the flat and was forced to chase back on himself. He was at the back because he had just made the catch! Clearly he was strong that day.
With our first lap plan of resting in the pack completely shot, we hit the “big” climb of the lap. Pushing the little ring I spun up it and advanced several places. I was very pleased with the ease with which I moved up considering I had prepared myself mentally for sag climbing the hill. This would continue to be the case with the climbs on the next 2 laps – each time I would advance positions without much “work” beyond what I felt was keeping pace. Now I am no grimpeur, but this is a massive change from a year ago when any pitch up in a course meant I was sailing out the back of a group – and that in the cat 4’s!
The second lap saw some serious attacking from the bunch as the race was officially on. I went with a promising looking one, which got brought back pretty quick. Nick bridged to the next big move (which included Joe of Verizon) and it stuck. 8 guys were soon up the road with a big gap. Like 30 seconds big. I was pleased with the situation, as Burnham, Bloomington, WCC, and Verizon all had a guy in the move, with ample bodies to block. I was trying to keep cool and eat as appropriate, but in the heat, my stomach did not feel comfortable at all. Even drinking regularly was upsetting me.
After several miles of block and chase (most with me sitting in the top 15, only occasionally directly blocking), I saw a couple riders coming back from the break. Sadly, one of them was Nick. The group had stopped working together and Nick got popped after a pull. It was a shame as he was away for a good 20 miles – 1/3 of the race! As I saw him up the road I moved next to Scott (ISCorp) who is a big young motor. I asked him if he had anything left (since he had been animating the race a fair bit) and he said he did if I had a jump. I of course answered “that’s the only thing I’ve got man.” Since it’s true. I started tempoing up to the front with designs of countering Nick’s move before he got caught. The idea being that I would go “up over the top” of Nick and hopefully take a TT monster like Scott with me to the break and keep that funk alive. As I approached the front I heard guys calling me out, but I jumped anyway. I got a gap but after a few seconds of hard pedaling I checked my six to see Scott pulling the whole field up to me. I sat up at that point, and we soon caught Nick. Lame. I just didn’t have the legs to go all out for 2-3 more min. to try to shake the pack. Nick slotted back in the bunch and looked comfy while I was a few wheels hinter. It turns out my little flail began to exact a cost I couldn’t pay.
I began throwing up. It’s never happened in a race before. Actually, it’s never happened on a bike ride before of any kind. But it happened. Did I eat too much? With 1 gel down after 60+ miles, I doubt it. I think I was succoming to the heat again. You can guess what happened next …I started loosing positions in the pack faster than I could spew excuses or stomach fluids. On my way out Nick (WCC) and Keith (Unattached) shouted encouragement to “hang in there”, “dig deep”, and all of that. At mile 63, I was dropped. Now, it wasn’t just my tummy troubles which sent me out the back, though I think that was a primary cause. At the front of the race things were heating up as the break had completely shattered by then and the pack was greedily reeling riders in one by one. Attacks were flying (I would guess) and the race was getting tougher. What surprised me most though was how quickly I lost myself. From top 15 to out the back was less than 3 minutes. It was there one minute and gone the next. Slowing down to 15 mph and turning the pedals at 60 rpm helped me begin to recover. Getting some water made a huge difference. I tempoed up the final climb noting that I still had decent legs but sheepishly crossed the line alone in 37th.
This summer has not been the cycling-results-love-fest the spring often was. Since upgrading I’ve had a flat, a crash, a heat wimp-out DNF, and been dropped in a RR. Woohoo. The cat 3 races are more demanding and punish weakness. And as I’m sure you know – I have a lot of weakness(es). However, I have to say it was my best state road race attempt yet. I had hoped for a lot more, and frankly, the flat tire definitely reduced my chances. Therein lies a major difference of cat 3 and cat 4 races (for me at least) – if you make a big mistake, you won’t have enough juice to recover. When I dropped my chain at the base of the big climb, also on the first lap, of the cat 4 Springvalley RR, I caught on after some hard riding and still finished 4th – despite attacking the field another 4+ times. At O’Fallon I attacked the field 2 more times yet couldn’t finish with the pack. L’Ouch. I know I’m a strong rider (my powertap and my mommy tell me so), but I need to take the game to the next level between the ears if I’m going to be standing on a podium any time soon. Until I have fistfulls of increased fitness, the margins are just that tight.