By Daniel McMahon
It’s Friday afternoon, about two o’clock, and I’m riding shotgun in my teammate’s car. We’re stuck in traffic and inching toward the Holland Tunnel, escaping Manhattan one slow block at a time. It’s brake lights everywhere.
It’s more or less a gorgeous day, if a bit muggy. We do our best to ignore the threatening overcast skies and forecast rain and talk about random things that guys driving to bike races talk about. 1980s bands, last week’s races, crashes, Communism even! All the while I’m hoping that the forecast for rain this afternoon is wrong. Who really wants to race a crit in the rain?
There are three of us in the car—another teammate is in the back seat—and we have all interrupted our regular schedules this Friday to do the first of the Tour of Somerville races, the Manville Cycling Madness race, in, yes, Manville, a small, quiet town in New Jersey, about an hour from New York City. We joke about the town name, punning off it to death. Joking is a healthy way to deal with any anxiety one may have as one heads to a race. I’ve never done Somerville, one of the oldest races in the country, but I’ve heard a lot about it.
We get into Jersey surprisingly fast (we’re making excellent time) and before long we’re pulling into the parking lot of a grammar school in Manville. There are some riders leaning over the hoods of cars pinning their numbers, a group of kids in orange matching T-shirts sitting on the grass near the registration table, who later are going to man the four corners of the course and alert spectators when the riders whiz by. There are some guys already warming up on the course an hour before go time.
We check in, get our numbers, and begin the pre-race rituals we all have. Mine are not special: I remove my bike from the trunk rack, check it over once, redo the quick-releases, spin the wheels, squeeze the brakes, lift it a few inches and drop it once or twice just to make sure everything is on tight. I change into my kit, embrocate and massage the legs a little, clean my shades, fasten the Velcro straps on my shoes. My teammates are faster than I am getting ready and are waiting for me. I hop on my bike and we recon the course.
It’s just under a mile all the way around course and there are four corners. “It’s going to be a really short race,” a passing rider says to his buddy. I think the same to myself. It’s scheduled for 20 miles, so I figure we’re doing 25 laps or so. The prize for first is $135 and a medal. That seems like a lot of money for a Cat. 3/4 crit, but then again, this is Somerville, one of the oldest race weekends.
I try to remember all the things a smart rider is supposed to remember to think about before a race. The details. I note the finishing straight to the line offers a slight headwind coming a little bit from the left, that three of the four corners you can pedal through but one you can’t, not really, that the middle half of the course, between turns one and three, is mostly a slightly uphill drag, that the last corner is a bit technical and tight for lines. There’s a sizable sewer grate a foot from the curb of the last turn, along with a slight bump in the road right before it, so you have to hold the bars firmly hitting it, and if you take the outside line you’ll be going right around the grate, but will probably lose speed and, more important, position. Taking the inside line between the curb and grate could make the difference.
At the start line things are quiet. Usually there is some joker who makes a comment to lighten the mood, but not really this time. I count roughly 50 riders. I have just received my Cat. 3 upgrade this morning, and I find myself looking around and guessing who might be a strong Cat. 3, that maybe I can grab his wheel when the move goes. I see Willie Payton of W.S. United in the front row, and I know he has a good sprint, that he’s nearing his Cat. 2 upgrade, and I see what look to be guys half my age—I’m 38—who have that fast look about them, like they can race all out and never tire. At the same time I remind myself to relax and have fun and stay out of trouble.
It’s my 24th race of the year. I haven’t raced this much in 10 seasons, during which time I didn’t even really ride a bike, let alone race one. Last year I did a dozen races or so, then did as many cyclocross races. This year is about upping the game, getting back into the sport. I’ve done some Cat. 3/4 races along with a slew of Cat. 4 races and have had some results but no win.
I’m thinking I can do well today as crits suit me better than any other cycling discipline. I like the speed—some don’t—and I probably have above-average bike-handling skills. Also, being 6-2 and about 170, my build suits the flat, high-speed mayhem that is criterium racing. And I don’t mind getting into battles for positioning in the bunch, sharing an elbow or two, or a lean when necessary. That helps. I don’t have a pure sprint, as they say, but I can sprint okay. Mostly I rely on getting away toward the very end of a race, moments before the sprinters dial it up, during that lull before the finish when the pack seems to acknowledge tacitly that the race going to come down to a field sprint that decides the winner and the rest of the places. So far this year I have been unsuccessful in making this late-move tactic pay off. Still, I think it is my best bet for a win.
Right before we set off racing, I think about what my coach has told me a few times this year.
Conserve. You don’t have to be attacking all the time. Be patient. Sit in, sit tight. Wait till you sense ‘the moment’ happening. Then you’ll be fresh, ready to go. Relax.
I’m nearly all the way at the back of the pack of riders at the start line, so I know it’s critical that I move up fast, like, immediately. There is no whistle blown or gun shot, just the race director saying, “Okay, you’re off!” The guy in front of me panics and can’t clip into his pedal, but I do so without problems. I pass him and say, “Relax, you’ll get it” and he says “Okay, thanks.” I find the right side of the field is an open lane, and though there is dodgy road surface to ride over, I gun it and move up almost all the way to the front in no time. By end of lap one I’m top 10. The pace is very high, and guys are getting shelled out the pack from the start. Some guys are having trouble taking a good line in the corners. I can’t see who it is but there appear to be two or three guys from the same team drilling it about 30 miles an hour, or faster, on the front, and we are perfectly single file, which I’m thinking must look kind of cool if you’re spectating.
As laps one and two go by, I see more and more riders on the side of the road leaning against their bikes with a defeated look on their faces. They got caught out by the blistering start and got dropped. I’m thinking the fast turns mean that if you were not near the front you were getting gapped by those taking bad lines. I feel sorry for the guys on the side of the road. I shouldn’t but I do. Coming out to race requires a lot of prep, time and money, so to be out of the game in about two or three minutes is jarring and depressing. A line from Aristotle pops into my head. He said something like, What is bad for one is good for another. One dies, but the undertaker is in business. Morbid, Aristotle, I think. But it means that my odds are improving each time a rider is dropped. This puts my head in the race more intensely, and now I’m focusing on the lines I’m taking and the speed and the riders around me. I’m glad the first few laps are done, and now the pack can settle into a rhythm, I hope.
The speed of the first few laps I handle fine, though I’m definitely working. Sure enough, I think, this pace has to slow, unless there are some monster riders in this race who can maintain the effort. About lap four things ease up noticeably and we get into that consistent race rhythm that those who race a lot of crits know well. It’s hard but not too hard, uncomfortable but not too uncomfortable. Of course it’s perfect time to attack, too, and my teammate takes a flyer. He gets a gap, and soon he is 10 to 15 seconds up the road, and the pack gets a little anxious and ups the pace. I just follow wheels and do not work. I can’t really block effectively because of the way we are riding, but I am ready to shut down any counter moves. The pack does not close down at first. My teammate, a strong Cat. 3, stays strong for a few laps, but eventually he is brought back. Then, another flyer, this one very short-lived. Meanwhile, I maintain my position in the top five or seven riders, and tell myself to relax, stay focused, not to waste effort. I focus on the details: staying perfectly in the draft, pedaling a high cadence to ease the burden on the legs, hold position.
As we pass the start/finish, it’s already 10 laps to go, so we’re now well into the second half of the race. Time is flying, and I start thinking about the finish and how to win. I think about the sprinters, Payton, the other guys who are probably hiding in the back, waiting to pounce. I always sense there are about 10 guys or so just enjoying the ride back there, who later will come forward and bust everything up with a killer sprint that I can’t even try to match. But I try to relax, and I remember what my coach has told me.
Next thing I know we are hitting turn 1 about 27 mph and a rider is just a few bike lengths in front of me, and I’m first of the bunch at this point. I watch in proverbial slow motion as the guy in front overcooks the corner, overbrakes, locks his rear wheel, rolls his tubular tire, and creates a small cloud of smoke and sparks—yes, actual smoke and spars—as his carbon rim grinds into the road. He zigzags wildly to a stop against the curb and is amazingly still upright. I’m thinking, wicked recovery, dude. Always enjoy a great recovery. Then I fly by him after just feathering my brakes, and I’m soon back up to speed.
With five laps to go I’m top 10 and start to move up a place in the pack each turn or so. The bunch appears resigned to duel it out in a field sprint. I, however, am thinking of my move, my one-trick-pony nod to Eki and Fabian, as humble as my Cat. 3 version is compared to theirs.
I decide this will be my all-out 100 percent go-for-broke attack move to win the race: On the last lap, on the backstretch, on the slight uphill drag, out of turn 2, I will take the turn in third wheel, then jump hard as I can and sprint up the right side to try to get a gap before the next turn, turn 3, then try to squeeze out a second or two more before turn 4, then get as aero as possible and hold till the line for the victory.
This does not happen.
At least not the way I am planning. Instead, as we roll past the start/finish with two to go, two riders on the front are talking to each other, and it is clear they have a card to play. I am behind them, in third wheel. We get through turns 1 and 2, then on the backstretch the one rider accelerates, in his saddle, and his buddy says, “Not yet, not yet!” But it’s too late, and the guy is already moving up the road. In a split-second decision, I jump hard and get his wheel. We have a gap of a few seconds heading into turn 3, then as we approach the start/finish with one lap to go and a little bell ringing, we have maybe seven seconds and I say, “We got a gap—let’s go!” He says, “Okay, you and me, one-two to the finish.”
I lead us into turn 1 blazing as fast as I could safely do so; he pulls us through turn 2; then I gun it on the slight uphill on the back side of the course. When I look for him to pull through, he is already a few lengths behind me, to my surprise. I’ve gapped him off. I look farther back and see the bunch is about to eat him up.
It’s just me out front, appearing to dangle, fool or wise man. I don’t know at this second which. If I get caught I know I’ll be too cooked from this effort to win or even place.
I get out of the saddle and sprint to turn 3, take a fast, tight line. I look back, under my arm, before hitting turn 4. I see the pack but they are a little back still and not closing as fast as I expected. It’s the first moment I think I can actually win. I take turn 4 super fast, about 30, and ride in between the curb and the sewer grate. I come out of the turn and sprint, taking a last glance behind me. I see the pack has exploded and the true sprinters have desperately made their last effort to catch me, but also that I have a gap still. I motor a little bit more, then sit in the saddle.
I cross the line before the others. The sprinters roll by me a second or two later. I’m in disbelief that I won, so no victory salute. But I’ve won.