Thursday, April 19, 2007

What is racing?

Thursday, 19 April

I'm confused—so I’ll venture onto the controversial end of the blogging spectrum and stir up trouble.

Compare two comments about local women’s racing last weekend. Allison said this about Seward Park: “I found the tactics of some other teams a bit shady, so that made the race frustrating….This is the problem with women's racing….cattiness.” And one of her teammates said this about Kings Valley: “Women’s racing in Oregon makes women’s racing in Washington look like NRC racing.” I have to say from the get-go that these two women are both in the top three among local riders I respect; what seems to be in question is what makes a bike race.

Women’s racing in Washington this season has featured rotating pacelines (when no one is off the front OR the back) and relentless attacks by riders who go 50 meters (or 50 feet) and sit up. If the “right” mix of riders get in a break, everybody else slows down to 12 mph to make sure it sticks and then just pedals around to the finish line. Is this “racing” or even “teamwork”? It sure produces a lot of cattiness and criticism, and you don’t hear anyone saying “good race” at the finish.

When I was a cat 4, all women raced together. That means, yes, that I did stage races with riders with world champion stripes on their sleeves, with pro teams with team cars and team radios—when I was a cat 4. Race tactics for me were simple: hang on for dear life. And sometimes I did. When I didn’t, it wasn’t because of attacks or catty teamwork. It was because of selective features of the course where my skills were not up to those of the elite riders.

Early-season races in Washington have a distinct lack of selective features. Or else we pretend they do. So Mason Lake and Tour de Dung devolve into training sessions where everyone can work on their jumps and “teamwork.” At Mason Lake, for example, the little hill after corner 1 has the potential to break up a women’s field—if you are willing to commit to a hard effort. But only one rider in the last race of the series used this to that advantage (and she proved my point). I can’t comment on Tour de Dung because I wasn’t there, but I heard very few positive comments about race conduct in the women’s peloton. The same reports come every year and, frankly, that’s one factor in why I don’t go.

Along comes Independence Valley, where the hills ARE selective in the women’s race, and suddenly there was an amicable, cheery front group at the finish that all reported a “good race” (in spite of the monsoon). Funny, though, that TST did not produce similar results. There, however, one team dominated at least in numbers and played the “teamwork” card. It is hard to imagine why Suz needed anyone “working” for her to win that race.

Switch to Oregon. The course at Banana Belt, their early-season series, has lots o’ rollers and one pretty good hill. I did the third race in the series this year, and the race was strung out single file A LOT. The girls from Bend attacked on the downhills, and the smarter folks pushed the pace on the uphills AND AFTERWARD. The race was harder and more interesting than anything at Mason Lake—and the field was bigger. Kings Valley has a reputation for being a hard course, but it has one of those climbs that’s only as hard as you make it. And when the 1-2-3s are started with the 4s, there is usually an unspoken effort to keep the race together for the first lap so that some poor 4 isn’t out there riding 2.85 laps by herself and hating bike racing for the rest of her life. And, just as Suz predictably won TST, the two women duking it out in the sprint at Kings Valley would’ve been my picks at the start line. The difference? Suz’s teammates apparently pissed off some of the field by their tactics during the race, while at Kings Valley I think everybody was happy except the Washington rider looking for an NRC race.

No, I’m not a rah-rah sisterhood “let’s have a happy race” kind of person. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s much point in short, squirrelly attacks for naught that seem only to annoy the competition. If you want to race that way, don’t expect to see me much at the front; it’s better value as entertainment from the cheap seats at the back than as good, hard racing. And it’s great if cat 4s get some experience riding in a bigger group and develop confidence in their skills. I won’t say that’s why OBRA has three times as many members as the WSBA, but it can’t hurt.

Back to my question on what is racing. Is it just teamwork? The winner of the men cat 1-2 race at Kings Valley abided by the teamwork concept for most of the race, but his teammates really didn’t play a part in his drive from the pack, through the break, and on to the finish line. What is the point of an attack if your commitment to your effort lasts only 50 meters? At Mason Lake, I watched women push the pace up a roller, string things out, and then quite literally sit up and wait for the group to come back together. Huh? I also understand the point of blocking, but that makes you about as many friends as sitting in for the whole race and then sprinting at the finish.

You can rightfully ask why I don’t quit whining and just go ballistic and ride away from all this cat fighting. Lots of excuses: lack of training this winter, lack of ability to go ballistic, lack of confidence, lack of youth, and, sometimes, lack of interest. Apathy is a terrible thing.

The bottom line seems to be: give me a race with a hill in it. I’ll probably get dropped, like I did at Independence Valley, but at least everyone will be in a better mood after the race.


Coach Curly said...

yer not gonna need such a big spoon to stir that particular pot...

Allison said...

I feel bad for the cat 4 women who are sometimes forced to race with the 1/2/3 women at races where there are no separate categories. When all the women start together, I think it is important to attempt to include the 4s in the race. This is not to say that the 1/2/3s should not race aggressively among themselves, but I don't think it is necessary to throw down fruitless attacks in the first two miles of a 60 mile race, in efforts to drop the new racers. Quite frankly, I have heard some 1/2/3 women openly state that they plan to attack early and hard to get rid of the 4s.

I also hear a great deal of complaning from the 1/2/3s when there is no separate category for the 4s: "we have to race with THEM? Ugh." You think the 4s are happy about it? I doubt it. As 1/2/3s, it is our job to encourage up-and-coming 4s to continue racing, rather than trying to dump them as quickly as possible.

It's too bad that women can't be, in some ways, more like men. Men don't include petty personal issues in racing, whereas women often will race differently because of off-the-bike issues. This is the sort of cattiness I was referring to at Seward last weekend, where a woman refused to work with me in what could have been the winning break. I know this woman knows how to race and knows a good move when she sees one, so I have to think it is personal. Sigh...

Ted said...

Fantastic blog entry Martha!

I am not speaking on Allison’s behalf so if anyone who reads this…direct your comments/actions to me…and not her. First, I would like to bring up at TST the race was run as a 1-4 women’s field. We (being Hagens-Berman Cycling) really have no choice to run it any other way. The amount of volunteers, cars, and radios is a lot more than is needed for any other local WSBA race. I think the running total of volunteers out on the course during the race is well over 50. At registration Kele asked me if we could run a separate cat4 field and I informed her that we could not (I probably said it with a nasty tone…nothing against her, I just had a lot of stress that morning with registration). We had between 40 and 50 women doing the race about half of which were cat 4s.

The selection of 13 was made right away in the race. That group of 13 was formed in the first few miles (and my beloved Allison was not with it…sigh…). Out of that 13 there was maybe one or two cat 4s. The rest of the cat4s were shelled. Was it necessary to shell the field there? I’m not going to make that call…I’ll leave that up to other people. I will say (for those of you that do not know the course very well) that there are three other hills where selections could have been made. Would that be better for women’s racing overall? Once again, I’m not making that call.

Now fast forward to the end of the race. A certain rider (who I find hilarious especially when she is fired up) came up to me completely fired up about tactics of a certain team. She was also fired up with the fact that three other teams that were represented in the group of 13 really did nothing to bring Suz and Moriah back…basically she was fired up. She complained about being physically blocked by a WoW rider; to the point where the WoW rider was putting her handlebars into her and her bars. To me that is purely bush league and inappropriate, but I was not there so I can’t make that call if it happened or not. But, I find it highly ironic that anyone from WoW would even be accused of “blocking” especially after seeing this comment by Suz on the OBRA list: “Blocking the road is definitely NOT cool. This is mostly a cat-4 tactic.”

Now what one person calls blocking and what another person calls blocking can always be two completely different things. I was not there, so I don’t know…I’m just going by what one woman told me.

I was happy to hear that Moriah liked our race and she’s excited to come back again to do it. Most other women, however, seemed very annoyed by the race/ride (Not Allison though…she seemed more annoyed with her fitness in general).

Longest comment ever!!!

Old as dirt said...

But, wasn't it great to have a combined field for the cat4 (s) that did make it into that elite front group, think of how they must feel, that's the plus side of having a combined field.

Michele said...

As a cat4 I actually like racing with the 123's. Partially because I learn more and the racing is smoother (that is when I can keep up). I understand at Ballard and other combined crits the pack wants to knock off as many riders early on,the thought of inexperienced women on a technical course is unnerving. I have been at both ends of this. Being dropped at lap two really bites and what was the point, but being taken out by someone who can't corner isn't much fun either.

Elkhorn and Methow were combined last year and those were my favorite races. Partially because I actually survived in the pack in Methow it was an opportunity be in a clearly more experienced field.

Getting women into racing and giving them a chance to have fun is what keeps them coming out not just winning, at least that is true for me. Even as a cat4 there is an obligation to include the new women talk to them and make them feel welcome and involved. It is very intimidating to start racing your bike and we all have been there.

As far as the cattiness I hope it isn't personal I can't imagine that it is but I am not in others brains to know for sure. Team goals may override a potentially winning break or some other factor could come into play for why the choice to not work together. Is this bad racing or shaddy? I don't know. Working as a team to win as a team seems like one of the goals of racing as a team. When you are out number by such a team I can see how frustrating that can be. Just my humble opinion. :)

stokediam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
andrew said...

How do you "block" a group of 13 people on a road race? Isn't the road like 12' wide, and handlebars are 42cm?

stokediam said...

Andrew: Ask me that off the record sometime.

Coach Curly said...

you 2... get a room...

andrew said...

"This is the sort of cattiness I was referring to at Seward last weekend, where a woman refused to work with me in what could have been the winning break. I know this woman knows how to race and knows a good move when she sees one, so I have to think it is personal. Sigh... "

Call it negative racing or whatever you like, but there are a number of reasons not to contribute to what could be the winning break. For me, if I were to go with a move by say for example the CYCA - Kenny Williams, I'm not apt to put in much effort. Sure, if I happen to last long enough I'll probably end up 30 seconds up the road rather quickly, but from there odds are it's a losing prospect (in order of likeliness):

Case 1: I get popped and even with a large gap, still get caught and spit out by the field. I'll be too tired from efforts to hang to even finish the race. My team is REALLY pissed when I show up going backwards through the field because the break that they thought they were represented in (and therefore didn't chase) is now up the road without representation.

Case 2: Get popped late and manage to hold on for the minor placings.

Case 3: I manage to hang on and get smoked in the sprint.

Case 4: Break is caught and I'm toasted from trying to hang.

Case 5: Break is bridged to, and then I'm left behind.

It's a judgement call each time. Some times the dice rolls come out well, others not so much. Gotta play the odds a little and hopefully in your favor.

Ted said...

“It's a judgement call each time. Some times the dice rolls come out well, others not so much. Gotta play the odds a little and hopefully in your favor.”

If that were the case then the ODDS were as follows (for the particular Seward race in question):

The break had two riders in it with a chance of winning 50%. Back in the field the odds of that rider winning would be 6.6% (1 out of 15). If you want to bring the “team” aspect into it the odds would be 5 out of 15 (33%). Either way the best way to WIN the race for yourself or the team would be to work in the break…especially when you are in the break with Allison who no one will ever accuse as “sprinter”. Also, the other rider was riding VERY well that day. If the break is caught the team, with 4 out of 12 remaining riders in the field, could launch a very good counter attack by arguably the best women’s rider in the region.

It was not just negative racing. It was dumb racing. The race ended and neither team got the win.

andrew said...

My point was that "Odds" are not always a tidy numbers game, but that you need to evaluate each rider. My example would put me well below 50% if I go away with Kenny in a 2-man break.

I didn't watch much of the womens race at Seward, but these things can certainly factor in. More likely the case, is the 5 person team was working for some other individual on the team (for whatever reason) and may have been willing to forgo personal gains for the benefit of a teammate. It's no fun when the same woman wins every race. Sometimes spreading the love is more rewarding.

tricia said...

On all cat racing - I think it is a great opportunity for strong Cat 4's to get a feeling for their readiness to upgrade. With that in mind, if the 1-3's "wait" and go slow for the Cat 4's so they don't get dropped, there would be some confusion and later disappointment. There were plenty of (strong) W1-3's that got dropped on that first TST hill from all of the teams at TST and a few Cat 4's who didn't. TST is a hard race, and I like it like that. It is not a practice race for Cat 4's or Cat 1-3's for that matter. It is supposed to be one of the hardest races we do.

Blocking - if by blocking you mean not chasing down my own teammate, then yes, I blocked. But really, I had been at the front keeping what I consider a challenging race from becoming rest periods between hills. The 3 teams and the two people who got into the break were all working together for the first 30 miles. Probably hard to see from the back, but it was a group effort. Once my teammate got away, I stopped pulling for a while and made sure to stay with the folks in front in case there was another break. Between myself, 1 team mate, and the two that got away, that was half of the people that had been in the front up until that point. That must have been lost on the people in the back, but true. When there was frustration that folks wouldn't pull through during the chase, I was laughing (to myself) - now you know how it feels!

Seward - I actually thought it was a good race. Once the break I got in was caught (2 WoW), and the second attempt didn't stick (2 WoW), when Allison made an attempt, I thought that was going to be a done deal (WoW, Ti), but Allison was in the middle, and it didn't stick. I figured more because of TST fatigue than any concious decision. I completely missed any personal cattiness and I am going to do my best to continue to miss it.

Allison said...

I'm not sure what you mean about me being "in the middle," and therefore the break not sticking. I did make a full bridge up to the woman who was off and yelled to her that we should go because no one was chasing. She then sat on my wheel and refused to help, which I think was a bad move. We had a fairly good chance of staying off if we worked together, even with me feeling like crap from my lack of racing/training.

Shannon said...

I hesitate to venture my 2 cents given that I have yet to race my bike this season and will admit that this discussion causes me even more trepidation about jumping back on the "horse", but here goes. I doubt that the rider's willingness to work with Allison had anything to do with interpersonal dynamics (maybe if we were talking about someone else, but I doubt that this is a problem that Allison could possibly have :-)). It seems more likely that the rider just didn't believe in the break's chances** or that the team was trying to help another rider meet her goals for the season.

Teamwork can be a very satisfying aspect of our sport, esp. for people like me who are unlikely to win a bike race. Suz may well have been able to win TST on her own, but I think this was her 1st win at TST despite coming close several years (someone correct me if I'm wrong).

As far as racing hard early at TST, I for one don't mind. It gives me something to strive for each year. If I hadn't been battling gale force winds in Boston I would have been on the start line again this year, hoping to last a couple more miles than the year before. Thanks for getting the discussion rolling, Martha!

**Note added in proof: after reading Tricia's post looks like this was it!

Argentius said...

Wow, stoked, you're a popular lady!

Throw out a post about team tactics, and we get 15 replies in a jiffy!

let me try that!

Coach Curly said...

These are like Blogs about a Blog inside of a Blog... kinda like being between two opposing mirrors.

Anonymous said...

What this post needs is an anonymous flame to really get it going.

Hey Martha: your hats start getting loose ends and shrink in the wash! How's it feel to have your knitting needles knocked in the dirt?

Take that

Crap, anonymous, I meant anonymous.

stokediam said...

If your head didn't swell so much, anonymous, the hat might fit better and the loose ends would stay put and not pop out. :) Ride fast in WW; you need 20 pts in the WSBA rider rankings to catch Lang:

Old as dirt said...

Oh, just to make it an even 20 comments!

Now go race your bike and quit complaining....all of you :- )

Laurel said...

ha- i randomly was looking at your blog (wondering if anyone could tell me about 3 rivers) and thought i'd chime in. . . even tho this is old news and maybe no one but martha will read it. . .anyhoo, i assume i'm the hilarious but fired up person that ted mentioned (i can't tell if that's a flattering portrait . . ) But for the record i still enjoyed tst, despite tactics that i thought were kind of questionable - i just don't like being bumped especially if I'm going hard (or trying to ;). I'm never a big fan of blocking, and it seems to me that once the flow of the chase has been disrupted and the gap is up to a minute or more, the teammates should simply not pull through and stay out of the way - they've already done their job. In this case the most frustrating part of the race was the lack of effort from some of the other riders and teams in the group. I would've thought that it was pretty obvious that we had little hope of bringing the break back. On the other hand, it's bike racing and i don't think anyone did anything 'wrong' - i just think negative racing doesn't make sense either. . . to the bigger OR vs. WA question, there is no question that Oregon women's fields have been pretty small in the past couple of years, but we still have some great races like kings valley, silverton, elkhorn (plug plug) and some of them are even kind of exciting?! - maybe i should finally get of my butt and try to organize a northwest cup interstate racing series - the washington fields 1/2/3 are also small and often predictable albeit in a different way than down here. . . second longest post!