(I’m in the black kit with white gloves, third rider)
Intro: Snake Alley is hard. Really hard. This is my third year racing it, and my first year racing Cat 4. Last year (as a 5) I raced it and ended up mid-pack. After that I raced two criteriums and a road race and got 4th, 3rd, and 4th respectively. My point is, being good locally is not enough to get good results at Snake Alley. Therefore, in my first year as a 4 I didn’t have any expectations of good results. I simply wanted to get out there and see what I could do. Category 5 does 6 laps, while Cat 4 does 12 laps. In the past two years I nearly died after 6 laps, so I was simply hoping to keep going as long as possible.
Course/Conditions: The Snake Alley Criterium is a 0.8 mile loop in Burlington, IA. Its defining feature is an extremely steep climb (20% according to Strava, 12.5% according to the race website) with five switchbacks, and all on bricks. It’s bumpy, twisty, narrow and steep. Unsurprisingly then, pack position is incredibly important in this race. In fields bigger than 20 or so people, if you hit the snake near the back of the pack you will probably need to get on the brakes. Thus you have to hit the climb ahead of as many people as possible. After the snake you get a fast and fun descent. The corners are very wide, and though the road is a bit bumpy in places, if you’re a reasonably competent bike handler you should be able to take all corners at full speed.
The conditions were beautiful, with nice weather and no rain predicted.
Field: Category 4 had 31 starters. This is a race that draws people from all over the midwest, and sometimes even further, so the field is always high-quality. Last year a young Hincapie Racing Team kid crushed the Cat 4 field. This year some DRAPAC Pro Continental guys showed up for the Pro/1/2 race. Also a women on a 2016 USA Olympics development team nearly lapped the Women’s Pro/1/2/3 field. As I hinted at in the opening, if you can do well here, you can do well most anywhere.
Strategy: I came into this race wanting to survive as long as possible; I had no delusions of a good placing. However I had to balance two opposing issues: if I got lapped, then I would get pulled. On the other hand, if I pushed hard through the first few laps, then I would almost certainly run out of gas and be unable to climb the snake 12 times. So my survival strategy was to push very hard in the hill leading up to the snake, and also on the snake. Then I would take the descent as fast as possible, and use the rest of the lap to recover. I figured I could pull a gap through the snake + descent, and hopefully force those behind me to work hard to catch me while I was recovering.
Racing: I registered early, and thus got to line up in the first row (pro-tip: If you race Snake Alley, register as early as possible! They line you up according to when you registered, and the start is crucial!). I got clipped in reasonably well, and hit the snake around 5th place. I pushed super-hard and maintained my position. I took the descent fast, but then dropped off the wheel of the leaders once the road flattened out. Since I knew I had no chance of truly hanging with the leaders I simply backed off and recovered.
At the time it felt like every lap I just had people streaming past me once I got onto the flats after the descent. It was very difficult mentally, but I stuck to my strategy. In reality lots of people were streaming past me, but I also passed 5+ people each time in the hill leading up to the snake, and on Snake Alley. I loaded up the Strava flyby and watched the guy who got 13th. For the first three laps I stayed well in front of him, and then for the next two laps I was not too far behind. So the situation wasn’t quite as bad as it felt at the time.
After the fourth time up the snake, I had to spend the rest of the lap convincing myself to keep going and not pull out. Simply the thought of having to climb it again was so difficult to endure that I had to psych myself up every lap. On the sixth lap just I convinced myself that I would do at least one more lap, and then if I really thought I couldn’t do another one after that, then I could pull out. But I got pulled. I wasn’t lapped yet, but the leaders must have been approaching. So it was a bit of a disappointment to get pulled at the end of the sixth lap. I pulled off and that was that. I ended up getting 23/31.
Looking at the results, it seems like they probably pulled roughly half the field. That made me feel a little better.
What I Learned: At first I wasn’t planning on writing this post, simply because I wasn’t expecting a good result, and I didn’t get a good result! But after thinking about it some more, I realized that there is plenty of training advice I would like to give myself for next year.
- My power-to-weight ratio is pretty good for the snake. All my times up the snake were between 26 and 35 seconds. For reference, last year my fastest time was 32 seconds! In searching Strava I was able to find the people who got first, second, and fourth. Their times up the snake were all in the 27 to 35 second range. Thus (at least for the first six laps), I was putting in times up the snake which were competitive with what the leaders were doing. Below you can see my six times up the snake in 2014, compared to my six times up in 2015. (In 2014 on my last lap I bumped someone and had to unclip and run up the snake, hence the terrible time.)The place I was struggling was with power on the flats, and the ability to recover. This is really highlighted when you do a similar comparison for the entire lap (not just the climb). Here you see that my times this year were not generally faster than last year. Basically, this says one thing to me: if I want to do well at Snake Alley next year, I need to train my FTP. I’m a small guy (~135 lbs), so while my watts/kg at FTP is fine for my category, my watts are still numerically low. This year I spent the month leading up to Snake Alley working on hill repeats and similar efforts. Now I see that my time would have been better spent primarily focusing on power on the flats. A higher FTP would mean that I could still ride at a “recovery pace”, and yet be going faster.
- In my first two times up the snake (when I was pushing the most power), I had issues with my rear wheel skipping. I believe what happened was that I was out of the saddle, I was cornering, and I was pulling up some on the upstroke. This caused the rear wheel to become unweighted and skip around. It didn’t cause a crash or anything, but it is wasted energy and it slowed me down. Trying to go fast while turning tight and avoiding others is quite difficult. This is an area where I could go faster without needing to get stronger.
Analysis: I went to this race hoping to have fun and improve as a racer. Immediately after the race I knew I had enjoyed the racing, but I didn’t really think I saw how to improve. It was only after some reflection that I realized just how much I could learn from this race. At the risk of being a bit audacious, I believe that next year I can get a decent placing here, maybe top 10, if I focus on this race. It’s a little to early to be planning next season, but I have some thoughts about what races I want to target, and Snake Alley might just fit in.