Intro: My second ever race was a 6-corner criterium similar to this one. However at that race I was almost instantly dropped, so I went into Grinnell feeling like it was my first ever “flat crit.” As far as criteriums go, I had previously done Snake Alley (one super steep hill, with switchbacks, on bricks) twice, but these didn’t have lots of technical cornering like Grinnell does. I had read a little bit on cornering and put in some light practice in the days leading up. This wasn’t enough to make me feel completely prepared, but I at least felt like I wasn’t starting from zero.
I drove up with my wife and arrived about 1.5 hours early. I brought my trainer, but the damn thing just wasn’t working correctly, and I was getting pretty impatient because of the nerves. So, I decided to just jump on my bike and do a “wing-it” warmup. I spent about 20 minutes in all, with half at tempo-ish pace, and half doing 90% sprints followed by a full recovery. I lined up actually feeling pretty good, both physically and psychologically. I knew that I had been training well and riding faster than ever before. My first race of the season I didn’t get a spectacular result, but I felt that that was largely due to lack of experience. So I believed that my mental preparation had gotten me ready to do better in Grinnell.
Course/Conditions: 6-corner criterium with a steady 2-3% grade up the back. Most corners were flat, but one had a slight downhill leading into it, and one was tight leading into the uphill. There was a crosswind at the starting straight, and a headwind up the hill.
Field: 13 racers with little-to-no team representation. I knew two guys, one who was a duathlete and has a good motor, and another who is younger and still lacking in power and experience. So I made a mental note to keep an eye on the duathlete. Besides those two I really didn’t know what to expect. After this race I learned to respect Tyler, a 13 year old junior who can really rip!
Strategy: I wasn’t yet super-comfortable with cornering, so I had conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, I was worried about cornering in an unsafe manner, and thus didn’t want to be around a lot of people. On the other hand, I knew that if I was on the back, my lack of experience in cornering could get me spit out in no time. So my plan was to ride at the front during the tail and crosswind corners. This way I could take it at my own pace and not have to worry about others, but also not waste too much energy pulling into headwinds. Then when it switched to a headwind I would drop back and let others do the work. The starting straight had a crosswind, so I would move up on the downwind side.
Racing: The race started at a fairly slow pace, so I was able to execute my plan immediately. I jumped into the front position, took the first three corners at my own pace in the tail/crosswind, then backed off. At first no one wanted to take up the front, so I just sat up and slowly took a drink from my water bottle. It worked wonderfully, and I used the “water bottle trick” for every subsequent lap! In fact, for all but one lap I executed this exact plan. Moving up on the start/finish straight was easy because of a decent (~10 mph) crosswind.
With about three laps to go I started to consider if I should “try something.” My main deterrent was the strong headwind uphill. It wasn’t a long hill, but I didn’t think I had the power to maintain a gap. So, I just decided to sit in. I felt reasonably confident with my sprint and thought I had a chance at doing well in a sprint finish.
With two laps to go the speed picked up considerably, especially leading into the uphill. One or two people even overshot the corner. I took it very well and stayed with the group fairly easily, which gave me a good boost of confidence. On the start of the bell lap I executed my same plan – get in front at the start, then let others pass. The problem was I was a bit too casual letting others pass. Because things had gone so smoothly the previous laps I got a little too calm. About 3-4 guys went past me (just what I wanted), but a few hundred meters before the corner leading into the uphill someone launched, and I just wasn’t mentally prepared. This was where I learned my first lesson of the day: mental awareness in the last few laps.
He got a good gap and held it all the way up the hill. I powered up with the group, giving it everything I had. There was a left turn at the top of the hill which led onto the start/finish straight. This is where I learned my second lesson: even if others do so, don’t coast before the corner when going uphill. In preparation for the corner the chasers at the front slowed. Now of course you should slow for a tight corner, but since this was going uphill people slowed before they needed to. I coasted too just based on my reaction to them, but in retrospect if I would have just pedaled another 5-10 pedal strokes I probably could have moved up a place or two before entering the corner.
I quickly got onto the sheltered side of the finish straight and wound up my sprint. I entered the corner around 6th or 7th position, and ended up 4th. Although I was hoping for a top 25% finish (meaning top 3 in this field), I was still happy with my result.
What I Learned: (1) End-of-race awareness: Obviously all race long you should be aware of your surroundings. But in the last laps/miles extra awareness is necessary.
(2) When going uphill into a corner you can brake/coast later than normal. This is intuitively obvious, but easy to forget in the moment. If others are coasting/braking in front of me, I will go around them if possible.
Analysis: My initial strategy worked like I hoped it would, though due to my unwillingness to push the pace, the group stayed together essentially the whole race. If I can stay in the first few on the last lap, then I don’t think this is an issue. As I get more confidence in cornering, it might be worth trying the same strategy, but pushing extra hard through the corners, and even lightly sprinting out of them. Even though this probably won’t drop anyone, at least it will make the people in the back sprint more and hopefully tire them out.
One of my guiding principles in racing is “Do only as much as is necessary.” In this race I potentially could have done less by not going through the corners first, but just second or third. As long as the person in front of me is capable at cornering I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. In fact, maybe that person would have pushed the pace, and thus done work for me.