Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spring Classics

March is the season of the spring classics here in Oregon, primarily populated by one, three week race series called the Banana Belts.  Don't ask; I have no idea why the name.  There are bananas on the registration table when you sign in, but the course does not resemble anything like a banana.  Racing is every Sunday for three consecutive weeks.

The Cat 3 field does races of 44, 55, and 66 miles respectively.  The first and third feature a sprint finish, while the second is run the opposite direction and features an uphill finish.

Race 1: I had high hopes for myself.  I was feeling good in the first two races of the season, and this one would resolve in a sprint finish after a fairly short race.  Hopes dashed - a third place prime, and nada on the finish.  It was a fun race, but man are there a lot of good sprinters in the field.  I finished nipping at the heels of them all, beating not a one.

Race 2: Didn't know what to expect in this one.  I've raced the Banana Belt series for the past two years, but this was the first time the road was in good enough shape to run the opposite direction.  Found out the hard way I still suck at uphill sprint finishes.  And that the course running five laps in the counter-clockwise direction is a lot harder than four laps in the clockwise direction.

Race 3: Sat in the field while Mitch the Man went out and crushed all from a breakaway starting at mile 2 to win the race.  Good times; hard race because of the climbs and the distance.  Lined up for the sprint.  Suck again.  No legs for the sprint.  No finishing speed.  No kick.  Nothing.

A weekend off of racing and then it's the infamous Piece of Cake road race.  This race would be a parade if there were no wind; basically completely flat.  But there was wind, and rain.  Belgium classic-like conditions: crosswinds complete with spitting, windblown rain, gray skies, and farm fields.  In the first lap, I tried to get off the front a couple times.  I had a hunch that the win would come from the breakaway given the crosswind conditions.  The whole race was one of suffering, looking for wheels to follow and for shelter.  A group eventually got off with a member of a big team and they just shut the thing down.  The pack was crawling; no team willing to bring people up to the front to bring back the break.  A few others got off the front, making a total of 10 people, fragmented in several chase groups.

Finally the sprint comes for 11th and I have nothing.  Again.  This lack of form at the end of the race is getting just a bit irksome.  Just a little.  I even had a good leadout this time... couldn't capitalize.  I should've picked a strategy and stayed with it.  By expending energy early hunting for breaks, I doomed my sprint finish.  Now I know what all fuss is about swinging for the fences.  These short, punchy fliers do nothing but wear down the legs.  I'm not off the front and too fried for a fast finish.  Either stay with the pack and sprint, leave it to chance whether I am sprinting for 1st or 15th, or try, try again for a breakaway.

I'm being owned at the finish because I am expending too much energy during the race.  Maybe it's as simple as that.  Maybe I'm not as good a sprinter as I think I should be.  Maybe I just generally suck at racing.  I don't know anymore.  All I know is that Cat 3 is for real.  For the first time, all these tactics, strategies, everything that everyone tells you about racing; it all starts in Cat 3.  In Cat 4 and below, you can get away with surfing through races. The guys with natural abilities come out on top more often than not.  In Cat 3, you start specializing.  You don't see the sprinters out in breakaways anymore.  You don't see the climbers in the bunch sprint.  Whereas it might be you and three other guys contesting the sprint at the end of a road race in the 4's, in the 3's, there's 15 guys just like you who are fighting for position right up till the end.  You don't see them during the race at all.  They are like ghosts drifting around and through the pack.  But the 1k sign appears and all of the sudden the front is swarming with them.  The last five minutes of the race are a constant battle for position.  Squeezing into gaps just wider than your bars to get to the front of the field (but not too far to the front!).  You get within sight of the finish and it's a game of chicken to see who jumps first.  Fourth wheel turns into 15th in the span of about two seconds when you're the chicken.

I feel like these March races have been my first real exposure to road racing.  Everyone is good.  Some are really good.  Mistakes in strategy or execution are punished.  Teamwork is alive and real; if you don't have it, you are at a distinct disadvantage to those teams that are organized.  Cat 2 is a dream that, for this year at least, is slipping away.  I have too much to learn still about racing.