Monday, May 08, 2006

I won a WHAT? (redux)

Sunday, 7 May

Last year there was a concerted effort to get me to “do” crits. It was somewhat successful: I didn’t get pulled from the Enumclaw crit until two laps to go (a record for me!), I can almost say I had a lot of fun in the tandem crit at Co-Motion, and I even hung in to get pack time for two almost-crits in El Salvador. But I can still think of lots of better things to do with $20 or $25 than to sign up for a criterium.

This year the plan seems to be to make me sprint. I'm pleasantly surprised that I have apparently learned the mechanics of sprinting by osmosis over the years, because my brain tells me “now you need to do this.” Okay, I’m not delusional and I know I’m not “a sprinter,” but twice now this year I have won a road race in something somewhat resembling a sprint.

This weekend’s sprint came at the end of the master A women’s state road race championship at Longbranch. The race is on a 10.5-mile circuit with one really hard (steep) climb and another steep-enough, stairstep hill. We were combined with the master B women (cat 4s). Not only was it raining steadily at our start, but the wind was blowing too--my favorite.

Everyone knows this race comes down to the hill, so we just rode the first few miles, for once hating the really smooth county road because it throws up so much spray. A straight, fast descent rolls into the base of the climb, and I made sure I was at the front. Given my ineptitude at Willamette at shifting onto the small chain ring, I put the chain somewhere in the middle of the cassette before I tried to shift over. But the chain wouldn’t shift off the big ring. Panic. I cannot ride up this hill on my big ring. After about 5 pedal strokes and shifting back and forth, it finally dropped onto the small ring. I’m sure the women behind me were cursing me for blocking the road while I flailed helplessly for a gear. It’s false flat for the longest time at the top, which is where chasing and regrouping happen. I think there ended up being about 8 in our group here, but I couldn’t get off the front (I’m supposed to be flattered that they all think it’s my job to tow them around all day?) so I never drifted far enough back to count.

After the false flat and some rollers, there are some little descents, a crosswind section where the wind pushed me sideways, and then a tricky little bend over a poorly surfaced bridge over some tide flats. I was happy enough to stay at the front. Besides, now I knew it would take some time to shift onto the small ring for the next hill, which starts right after the bridge, so better to be at the front (and slow everyone else down!). I don’t know if we dropped anyone on this hill. (This is strange: I’m usually the gatekeeper at the back on climbs and know exactly who’s left in a race. Hmmmm.) Then there’s another gradual descent, a sweeping turn where folks sometimes go off the road, and a stretch of bad pavement at 1K to go that’s lots worse than announced at the start line.

This is a race of attrition, and some more folks attrited [wow! that really is a word!] on the second and third times up the hill(s). We tried to organize a paceline after the second time up the hill, but there were women in the group who had no clue what this was or how to do it. So Gina and I sat at the back until we got too scared and then we were back at the front. We were finally down to a gang of four: Gina, her teammate Julie, Karen, and me. Julie and Karen are Bs. Karen seemed very happy to ride at the front--except that she was always looking over her shoulder, which was disconcerting because I wanted her eyes on the road ahead--and I hardly ever saw Julie because she was seeking as much shelter as she could find.

Weather note: at the start of lap three, it was absolutely pouring rain. El Salvador quantities of rain (just about 20 degrees colder). We were lucky it was a short race. On the second time up the lesser hill, you could literally see the water cascading down the hill as we were trying to ride up it. After the third time up the big hill, it seemed to let up, and then it got brighter and you could see farther up the road. That was temporary, though, and it poured again right up until the afternoon session of men’s races started. Then the sun came out and there was beautiful blue sky for the rest of the afternoon.

With any other group of women, it would’ve come down to two separate races: Gina and me, and Julie and Karen. But Gina, who is a far better tactician and sprinter than I, is also a self-sacrificing teammate and wanted to be sure that Julie won her race. She attacked at about 300 meters to go to lead Julie out for the finishing sprint. I knew she was going to attack (just not that early), I thought “there she goes,” and then the little voice in my head that has learned sprinting by osmosis said “and now you get on her wheel.” That took some work. Fortunately, that same little voice did not say “that’s Julie’s wheel,” and Julie wasn’t in sight (peripherally--turns out she was on my wheel). Just when I was thinking there was no way I was going to get around Gina, much less pass her, her sprint started to fade. I waited until well after we passed the 200m sign to go around her. It was still a very long (uphill) way to the finish line and I wasn’t exactly accelerating, but I beat her to the line of duct tape across the road, with Julie on my wheel.

Three hundred meters isn’t very far, but it’s amazing to me how much thinking can go on in that distance. When someone accelerates on a hard climb, I am usually so oxygen deprived that there are no verbal cues in my brain, just the certainty that I have to get on that wheel. But in both this sprint and the one at Kings Valley (the sum total of my vast successful sprinting experience), the thoughts just seem to fly. Do this, do that. It’s as if my brain has been trained to tell me what to do…but it hasn’t been, which is why I think I’ve learned this by osmosis. Okay, there’s not that much involved in sprinting but there seems to be tons of time to think. In years past, my thinking at this point has mostly consisted of "and there they go."

Another observation is about how different people climb differently. Some like to go super hard at the bottom so that it’s a crap shoot whether they’ll be able to maintain enough effort to get over the top. Some just keep a steady tempo. And I know a couple of deviants who like to accelerate (i.e., turn the screws) near the top!

I hope Julie recognizes the sacrifice that Gina made for her yesterday and also learned some things about what teamwork can do for you. Not only did Gina help her at the finish, but I know she was “protecting” Julie and working for her during the race, and there were strategic chats at various points. Gina knows how I race and what I can and can’t do (or will and won’t do). She had at least as good a shot as I did at that gold medal with 1K to go. And yet it was more important to her to make sure that her teammate won her race. And--since she was the number one advocate for making me ride crits last year--maybe she wanted to give me the opportunity to work on sprinting.

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