Intro: This was my second year racing the Grinnell crit, but the course was different this year, so count it as the first time. I went into my first season as a Category 4 racer being realistic about my expectations. This race normally has a smaller turnout, so I was targeting this one and a road race next week as my “A” races for the season. Besides a “choose your own category” race at the beginning of the season, I haven’t had much success in Cat 4 yet. So I was hoping this race would turn things around for me. Last year this race was where I hit my stride and got 4th place. After that my results continued to be solid (3rd at Rose Festival Crit and 4th at Iowa State RR Championships). So I think that based on my normal training schedule, this is about the time of year that I start getting my best fitness. Thus I had high hopes for this crit.
Course/Conditions: The course is a 6-corner, pancake-flat crit, run counter-clockwise. Weather was overcast and in the high 70s, with almost no wind. All of the corners were quite wide, although the last two left-hand turns (going around the right side of the park) were fairly choppy.
Field: I raced Mens Cat 4, and the field had 14 starters. I knew several of the guys racing, and a local team had entered three guys. One I knew was a sprinter, and one hadn’t raced crits in a while, so I wasn’t expecting him to be doing too much today. Before the start, a buddy of mine racing Cat 3 told me of a particularly strong guy who would be racing with me. So besides 4 or 5 guys that I knew, I was pretty clueless about what the field would be like.
Strategy: As I said in the intro, I really wanted to get a good result today. I’ve written before about racing to place vs racing to win. In that post I basically said that trying to get a “good” placing had caused me to not take risks. However today I knew that I would be content with a “good” placing. I wanted to feel like my training had paid off, and like I belonged in Cat 4. This drove my strategy.
This course had three factors that made me believe we would end in a bunch sprint: flat, wide corners, and no wind. Thus my plan was to conserve energy and contest the sprint. Even though the corners were wide I still wanted to avoid sprinting out of corners, so I always stayed between 2nd and 5th wheel. I was careful to wave people past me once I got too far up the line, but also to move up immediately if I started to slip too far back. I feel very confident cornering, so I tried to always make up places there.
Finally, I wanted to keep an eye on potential moves, but wasn’t interested in chasing anything down on my own, or on initiating anything.
Racing: Racing started out fast and stayed that way. Our average speed for the race was 25.3 mph, and I know that the Pro/1/2/3 field averaged 26.8mph (in the second group, which seemed to consist mainly of the Cat 3 guys). Thus we had a reasonably fast pace.
About five laps into the race one guy went off the front. This was the guy who I was warned was fast. Since I’m a small guy I didn’t believe that I could hang with him if it was just the two of us, thus I sat in the field and waited. After a lap or so one guy from the team of three bridged up. At the time I knew that if I wanted to win this race then I needed to go with him. But I didn’t. As for why I didn’t, there are several reasons/excuses. One is that I don’t really like breakaways, because I don’t have the raw power numbers to contribute properly. Two is that the two breakaway guys dangled off the front at only 5-10 seconds for a couple laps. Thus I believed that someone in the group would pull them back. However the team of three played it well, and always sat around second wheel in order to discourage any rotations. So instead I decided that if anyone else went to bridge I would jump on, and if not, I would be happy racing for third. One or two people did jump, but nothing stuck. Slowly the breakaway’s advantage grew to 30+ seconds, and it was clear we were racing for third. Again, based on my goals for this race I was fine with this situation.
The last 20 minutes were pretty uneventful until the last lap. At the bell lap the sprinter I spoke about before went for it, and the last lap we averaged 29.6 mph and I put out 423 watts NP over the roughly one minute lap. Going into the second-to-last corner the sprinter punched it hard to get a gap, but overshot the corner. He ended up hitting the corner and crashing spectacularly. I was third wheel going into that corner, thus after his crash I was now second wheel. The crash made me lose my concentration briefly, and the guy in front of me took advantage of it. He continued to push hard, and coming out of the last corner he had maybe 50 meters on me. I kicked hard, but couldn’t close up the gap. I finished comfortably in fourth place, and just inside the money. Given my strategy and goals I was very happy with this result. While a podium finish would have been great, I was still extremely happy with fourth place. Finally, I felt like I can race in Cat 4.
What I Learned: The most important thing for me was that I learned that I can compete in Cat 4. True, this field was not as stacked as many of the races I’ve done this season, but there were still plenty of fast guys. I’m going to take this confidence and try to build on it in the next race. But now, here are some specific things I learned:
- Have some “trigger points” ready. Pre-race I knew that if the team of three sent someone up the road then it would be hard to bring them back. But when I saw one of those guys go, I simply waited to see what the response was. Since I was shooting for a good placing (as opposed to only caring about winning) I feel okay with my decision to not follow him. But next race I need to set up some trigger points. By this I mean that ahead of the race I will decide that if X happens then I will do Y. Otherwise I waste time during the race deciding what to do, which often means that I don’t have enough time to do anything.
- I need to continue developing better race awareness. I saw the three laps to go sign, and then I lost my concentration. It wasn’t until I heard the bell and saw someone step up the speed that I realized we were on the bell lap. My positioning was good so I was able to respond appropriately, but nonetheless I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. Maybe something simple like saying out-loud to myself “three to go”, “two to go”, “next is bell lap”, etc. would help me.
- I’m a “burst” type rider. I don’t have a big FTP. My watts/kg are good across my power profile chart, but since my weight is so low this means that my watts are low compared to most of my competitors. However I have a strong kick, which I can use to sprint, close gaps, or get into position for a corner. I already knew this, but this race enforced that I need to utilize that knowledge. I need to be prepared to immediately jump onto wheels during important moves. I can put out good power for 30 seconds, and my small size means that I get a good draft. But if I need to spend one to two minutes bridging then I basically stand no chance. This is something to work on for next season, but for right now I just need to accept it and use that knowledge accordingly.
Analysis: I really had a blast racing this crit. I love fast cornering and elbow-to-elbow racing. There was plenty of that, but (most) everyone stayed safe. My next race is a 40 mile road race this coming weekend. Armed with the knowledge and confidence from this race I truly believe that I can place well, meaning top five.