By Zachary Rynew
Racing is dangerous.
If you have a family member that cares for you, they’ll discourage it and rightfully so.
With speeds starting at 25 mph and your only protection a Tupperware grade helmet, there is virtually no margin of error while entrenched in a herd of riders. All it takes is a split second for someone to improperly guide their line, react to debris or just not pay attention to be the beneficiary of some misfortune.
I have avoided criteriums for these very reasons and this is coming someone who used to play full contact hockey. At least when I had the skates on, your teammates are there to back you up when harm is near. In cycling, almost everyone you race against is your adversary. Settling the matter on your own would be ineffective and look silly fighting in spandex and slippery cleats anyways.
Still, there is something very intriguing about these races. The dynamics of a peloton carries a level of natural beauty, like birds flocking behind a leader with defined course of action. I find it fascinating to recognize the order within the chaos of a large race.
On the sporting level, everyone understands the excitement of competition. Grabbing a wheel, assessing the moves and judging team tactics, it’s always fun to test your abilities against others.
I’d be in denial to say I never wanted to race crits. I’ve done road races and have thoroughly enjoyed them. I felt comfortable racing in thinner groups and overall reduced speeds. To do crits, I would have to get over my mental block of lack of perceived control. Of course, without trying all this was in my head. After a couple of years of lying to myself, I finally decided to pull my big boy pants out of the dryer to see if my fears were unfounded.
I registered for a Cat 5 race which is ground zero for all beginners. I was fortunate to have a friend along for our maiden voyage. Unlike me, he has a lot of potential and an amazing burst of acceleration. I’m more of a put my head down and hammer as much as I can similar to being in a hamster wheel. The plan was to stay near the front out of danger and to spring him for a sprint finish…after we feel things out.
That went to hell fast. Someone immediately jumped out and I decided to chase him. I had no ambitions that this was a winning move. I only did it for the fear of getting caught back in a slower group. When the frontrunner tired, he wanted me to take a turn to fend off the peloton. I didn’t reply directly, but I hope the look on my face was sarcastic enough to convey my thoughts.
The peloton came by and soon I would fall back deep inside the crowd. We were averaging speeds slower than I predicted, so the group stayed intact and the pack was spread across quite wide. To keep out of harm’s way, I stayed on the outside to avoid any inner mishaps. Seeing people make moves without looking for space justified my actions.
Sure enough, a few laps in someone slid out on the inside and another leapfrogged over him. Fortunately, they were both gone the next lap, so I assumed they were fine. Still, there were some residual effects as we proceeded as the crash scare some people straight. The jitteriness waned and everyone was more firm holding their lines.
While I was able to stay in contact with my friend a good part of the race, I still feel our lack of experience didn’t keep us properly positioned. Somewhere in the middle of the race, my friend leapt out in front pushing the pace. I jumped out in front to save him energy for the sprint, but ultimately all I did was slow things down. That mistake was rewarded by getting overtaken by a large group on the outside sending us back to the rear. In hindsight, I should have picked up the pace and try to split things up. Live and learn.
Being caught in the back isn’t the place to be as a race nears its end. Besides being nestled alongside a bunch of skittish cyclists, those same riders are trying just as hard to move up for the finish. For the last two and a half laps, I did my best to advance while staying free of the chaos as much as possible.
This wasn’t so easy. It takes a lot of energy to get around people at this stage of the race. By the time I got near the finish, I was entrenched in the middle without a full tank of gas for the part I feared most, the sprint!
I’ve watched my fair share of finishes on the Pro Tour. Crashes happen. Probably less than we think, but the ones we see are so vicious, we’re always on edge when we watch. Riders pile up, bones crack and debris flies as if being in the eye of a hurricane.
It’s hard to get these images out of my mind. Sprinting isn’t one of my top skills, so I wasn’t supremely confident I could successfully maneuver around the field better than I already had.
As things started around the final turn, the intensity picked up, but surprisingly with a lot of structure. The field spread out far across making it hard to find a wheel to grab on to. Everyone kept their line and pumped out whatever they had left. That I could do. In the end, my friend did a much better job navigating the morass finishing sixteenth whereas I finished in the middle of the pack.
I felt good crossing the finish line. I wasn’t checking my bits and pieces nor giving prayer for remaining upright. Instead, I thought how could I improve? When should have I started to position myself for the sprint? Who were the good riders I should have followed?
My state of mind was entirely different from the start of the race to the end. You cannot entirely overcome the anxiety that something bad will happen, but I understood better that NOT wanting to crash is people’s natural state. Despite cycling with a group of novices and strangers, people worked to together to be ordered and competitive at the same time.
Despite playing with house money, I came back to my original question. Should I race criteriums? The race was exhilarating, but you could not remove the element of danger. I was definitely conflicted, but the fact that the race was far more tempered than imagined did have an impact on me.
I pondered and took about an hour to come up with my answer. That’s when I lined up for the Cat 4/5 race.
Zachary Races/Commutes/Crashes bicycles on a daily basis. He also writes for the Los Angeles blog anotherperfectday.net and can be followed on Twitter @AcrossLA.