Superweek and Soldier Field (John Whipple)
I decided to do four Superweek races this year. My primary goal for each race was the same: get into a successful breakaway or die trying. Secondary goals included working on team tactics with Alex (in the 1/2/3 masters) and Jesse (in the 3’s), identifying the strongest riders in the masters fields (where I will be doing a fair amount of racing in the future), trying to rid myself of certain bad habits (e.g., pulling the field for extended periods), and accumulating enough upgrade points to advance to cat 2. There was a certain degree of tension between my primary goal and my secondary goals. Relentlessly trying to get into a break isn’t always the best way to accumulate upgrade points, for example. Sometimes it becomes clear that a break isn’t going to get away because of the composition of the field or the course profile (among other things); in such cases one is better off sitting in and conserving energy for the field sprint. But sitting in has never been my forte. It doesn’t suit my strengths (I’m not a particularly good sprinter) and (more importantly) it’s boring. I’d prefer not to spend thirty bucks to be bored out of my mind for a leisurely fifty minute group ride followed by a life-threatening bunch sprint. Speaking of boring, what is the ideal crit course? If you race in Chicago you might think it’s an oval or any course with wide, smooth corners. I know this is a matter of personal preference, but those courses bore me to death (and often result in the type of race described above). I’m looking for at least six turns, several of them sharp. Better yet, throw in a 180-degree turn (thank you Urbana Grand Prix and Elk Grove) and some rain, anything that requires some degree of technical skill on the bike. This is one of the reasons I was excited about Superweek. The races I was going to do were almost all on at least semi-technical courses, which would make it difficult for riders to sit in without doing very much work.
Mill Race Classic
Alex (The Generalissimo as J likes to call him) and I lined up for this six-corner crit through downtown Geneva. The feature of the course that got everyone’s attention was turn three; it was sharp and the pavement was rough with a few significant divots. There was not a smooth line through this turn (if there was I certainly didn’t find it). The race started fast with Druber stringing out the field for the first three laps. After that there was a succession of break attempts. Alex and I were involved in a number of them, none of which were successful. It proved to be difficult to stay away on the long uphill straightaway after turn four. But it was clear that the repeated attacks were taking their toll on the field and that a break would stick at some point. About halfway through the race Alex and I attacked coming around turn six. We had a small gap with one or two riders in tow. After hammering through the first straightaway and turn one Alex turned to me and yelled, “go.” When the Generalissimo tells you to do something you do it. I bolted off the front, flew through turn two, and accelerated towards turn three. Taking this turn at 24mph was dangerous. But as my bike computer would later reveal, private Whipple decided to take it “no brakes” at 31.7mph. Not smart. The next few moments were a blur. My tires lost traction going over one of the divots. Before I could blink I was flying over the curb and onto the grass missing what appeared to be a telephone pole, trashcans, and a few spectators by the narrowest of margins. Somehow I managed to keep the bike upright and guide it back over the curb. My rear tire proceeded to explode, which is really a shame since I had a bit of an adrenaline rush after the near death experience. Neutral support quickly swapped out my ten-speed campy wheel with a ten-speed SRAM wheel (not an ideal scenario but I’m very grateful that we had neutral support for the race). Worse still, the race official in the pit insisted that riders with mechanicals get reinserted at the back of the pack even if they were on or off the front when they had their mechanical. I was too dazed to make much of a protest. By the time I worked my way back up to the front of the field Alex told me Mosora and some other riders were off the front. They would not be seen again. A few laps later Alex and I initiated a five-man break that included Druber and a rider from WDT and Verdigris. Druber took a few courtesy pulls but he didn’t have to do any work because his teammate Mosora was up the road. We were able to establish the break and drop the WDT rider in the process. Time to deploy some team tactics with two of us in a four-man break. On the bell lap I eased up to let Alex roll off the front. He quickly had a sizeable gap. Eventually Druber decided to chase. I jumped on his wheel with Verdigris right behind me. Unfortunately Druber caught Alex on the final turn but I was able to win the sprint (slipping gears notwithstanding). It was a fun race and we were relatively satisfied with fifth and eighth place.
Jesse and I did the 3’s race at Homewood. It was a well-designed eight-corner course. Matt from ReCycling attacked at the gun. A rider I didn’t know quickly jumped off the front in pursuit. I attacked before turn five. No one was on my wheel. In about a lap the three of us joined forces and started putting time on the field. Much to my surprise Mike Seguin bridged up a lap or two later. That was an impressive bridge. He was absolutely dying but found the strength to take his share of the pulls. We lapped the field with a few laps to go in the race. I tried to go off the front again but without success. I was worried because Mike and Matt both had teammates who might be able to lead them out for the final sprint. Normally Jesse would be able to do this for me but he had crashed earlier and hadn’t been able to get back up to the front. As usual things started to get sketchy on the final two laps. I put in an early and (I think) unexpected attack on the bell lap. I jumped right before turn five. I held a small gap but by turn eight riders were on my wheel. I decided to keep hammering all the way to the finish line. I led out a couple of sprinters but none of my breakaway companions (the only riders who mattered at this point) were able to get around me.
After winning the Homewood race I knew I’d be marked at the Willow Springs road race. The race was considerably shorter than a typical 3’s road race (only 30 miles). It included a three-tiered hill leading up to the finish line but the hill wasn’t hard enough to cause much of a selection. Most previous races on this course (or variations of this course) have been decided by group sprints. Be this as it may, I wasn’t about to abandon my Superweek modus operandi. The plan was for Jesse to sneak off the front on the first lap at the base of the hill. I’d jump at the base of the third tier of the climb and try to bridge up. If we had a couple of other committed riders with us and a small gap we might be able to get away. I knew the field would be chasing hard and there would be little margin for error. Things started out as planned. Jesse and another rider go off the front. Scott from Psimet and Patryk L jumped on the second tier of the climb. I hit the hill full gas when we finally reached the third tier. No one was on my wheel. I picked up all the other riders on the hill or just over the top of the hill. I tried to take control of the group and get everyone to work together right away. It worked as well as could be expected. We were working hard and rotating through smoothly to maintain our small gap. As I came to the front I couldn’t help but noticing that the pace car was slowing ahead of us for no apparent reason. I flailed my hands wildly to try to get the driver to speed up but he (or she) slowed down even more. I had to hit the brakes hard and ride up alongside the car to avoid a crash. Fortunately none of us went down but this immediately killed our break. I knew the chances of getting away were slim but I didn’t expect to be thwarted by the pace car. The remainder of the race is hardly worth mentioning. I kept trying to get away but people were all over my moves. Every time I started to move I’d hear “Whipple’s coming on the left,” or “Whipple’s coming on the right.” Jesse’s moves were marked closely too. Riders were willing to chase and sit on my wheel but they weren’t very enthusiastic about pulling through. One well-represented team was obviously trying to set things up for a bunch sprint. At this point I realized that Willow Springs was going to end up in the “die trying” category. In retrospect I should have mixed things up and tried to attack somewhere else on the course (I attacked in exactly the same place on almost every lap). The lone bright spot in this race was Jesse’s performance. He rode really well and did an amazing job trying to set up my moves. I regret that I wasn’t able to lead him out in the final sprint.
Soldier Field is not Superweek. It does take place during Superweek, however, so I’m going to include it in this report. I approached the race with a certain degree of nostalgia. It was just under a year ago that I lined up in the Soldier Field parking lot for my first bike race ever. As an unattached rider with very little experience riding in a group, I had no idea what to expect. The only thing I was certain about was that my 1994 Giant Cadex with down tube shifters seemed seriously old school in comparison to the fancy machines that everyone else was sporting. The race started fast; I quickly realized that riding in the small ring was not going to cut it. I shifted into the big ring and held on for a pack finish, completely unaware that Hemme and The Sheriff had lapped the field. Two things were clear: racing was fun and I had a lot to learn. A year later racing is still fun and I still have a lot to learn, but I’m making progress. I lined up for the 1/2/3 race with Jesse and Alex. The generalissimo cast some icy stares at the competition, which included P/1/2 state champ Dave Moyer and a number of other strong riders from xXx, ReCycling, WDT, and the Pony Shop. No worries about being marked in this field. Riders started attacking right from the gun. Alex and I (separately) took part in several ill-fated moves in the first few laps. Padfield from Recycling and then Liam from xXx slipped away on solo attacks. Alex attacked a lap or so later and dangled about thirty meters off the front for the better part of a lap. I decided to try to bridge up and surprisingly it worked. We went full gas and established a decent gap. Unfortunately Moyer had also bridged up. His teammate Liam was up the road so he didn’t have to work. Great. We were giving the state champ a free ride up to Liam. That’s basically what happened. Once we started closing in on Liam Moyer bridged up, leaving us in the dust. I figured that Alex and I would be trying to hold on for fourth and fifth with Moyer and Liam working together ahead of us. But Alex and I kept the pace high and were able to catch Liam and Moyer five laps later. We were working together reasonably well for a few laps; I thought that things would proceed smoothly from there until the final laps or at least until we lapped the field. Unless someone blows up that’s usually the way breaks work in the 3’s. I should have known otherwise. Moyer took a really hard pull. I could barely stay with him. I keep the pace high as I pulled through despite the fact that I was on the rivet. Just about the time I was expecting Alex to pull through the Bearded Rocket (Liam) flew by on my left. I feebly attempted to get on his wheel. It didn’t happen. I thought it was going to return to the previous scenario with Alex and I pulling along Moyer. But the Generalissimo and State Champ were no longer behind me. I was in no mans land with nine long laps remaining in the race. I seriously doubted that I could hold off the field for that long by myself, but somehow I managed to do it with the encouragement of J and a host of other Tatitos who were cheering me on every lap. I crossed the finish line about three seconds ahead of Boba who took the field sprint. That was a lot of work for my first 1/2/3 podium, but it was worth the effort.
Soldier Field doesn’t have payouts but they do have podium girls. Just when I thought I had finally figured out podium decorum they decided to throw this at me (I’ve had my moments on the podium involving helmets, sunglasses, and unzipped skinsuits inter alia, but let’s not go there). In the big European races it is of course standard practice to kiss the podium girls on each cheek, but what is one supposed to do in the States? I had no idea and was hoping they’d start with the winner (Liam) so that I could follow his lead. Alas, they started with third place. To the delight of the crowd (if not the podium girls) I went with the European option.
Only one Superweek race was left on my racing calendar—the Racine criterium. I thought it was a great course. There were eight corners and a short kicker before the long finishing stretch. The course was moderately technical, but two really long straightaways were going to make it difficult for a break to stick. I figured that the best place to attack would be right before turn three because turns three through eight were in quick succession and finished with the short kicker. There were around thirty riders in the race. I recognized hardly any of them, which was not surprising given that thirteen states were represented. This seemed to be a good sign. Presumably one does not come all the way from Florida, Cali, or Texas to do a leisurely thirty-five mile group ride. There was only one xXx rider (Mike Seguin) and one guy from Burnham (Nick Ramirez). This was also good because Mike and Nick are both aggressive riders that I’ve ridden with in successful breakaways. I thought there was a good chance that I could finish on the podium, which was exactly what I needed to complete my quest for cat 2 upgrade points.
The first five laps were intense. There were lots of attacks but none of them were successful. I was off the front three times with different combinations of riders but nothing stuck. The pace was hot and the field was chasing everything down in short order. In the (not so distant) past when I was off the front and the field caught me I would pull the field around for at least another half lap or so. Not smart (obviously). Now as soon as I get caught I pull off so I can recover and watch for counterattacks. This is a simple tactic but it’s taken me the better part of a year to figure it out. Another big mistake I’ve often made is to do a lot of work chasing down breaks when I’m the only rider on my team in the race. I burn myself out chasing down a break and then other riders that I’ve been dragging around the course launch a counter-attack to which I can’t immediately respond (so I catch my breath, chase down another break, watch another counter-attack go, etc.). Now I generally let other people do the chasing or attempt to bridge up to the riders who are ahead of the field. If I don’t get a gap when I start my bridge attempt I pull off immediately and watch for someone else’s wheel to grab or try another bridging attack. This is the sort of thing I was doing more successfully than usual at Racine. None of the initial attacks were successful, as I mentioned before, but they were wearing down the field. Of course I was getting worn down too, but that’s just an indication that the field is now susceptible to an attack (or so I like to tell myself). Time to muster up the strength for one more move.
I attacked again on the long finishing stretch. I had not picked this as an ideal place to attack but it made sense in the present context because the field had just reeled in another break attempt and had started to slow down a bit. One rider grabbed my wheel. We quickly established a small gap. There were about thirty miles left in the race. Long odds for a two-person breakaway with no teammates to block and a strong field in pursuit. Fourteen laps ticked by. No one was giving us time checks so I had no idea how far we were in front. I quickly found out as my partner imploded and sat up. The field was looming large behind me (I’d guess that I had a five to eight second gap). I was dying but not willing to throw in the towel. I figured I’d try to dangle off the front in the hope that one or two riders would bridge up to me. Nine laps later I was still off the front and about to go into cardiac arrest. Finally two riders bridged up and rescued me from what seemed like an endless purgatory. We stayed away from the field for the remainder of the race. The two other riders in the break were much fresher than me but I tried to tell myself that the strongest person doesn’t always win. Unfortunately my tactics did not allow me to confirm this maxim. I botched the finish and ended up last in the break.
I was now eligible to upgrade to cat 2. What to do? Should I stay in the 3’s and try to win a few more races before getting a mandatory upgrade? Should I race “selectively” and try to win the 3’s at Hillsboro (or other big races) next year? These options did not appeal to me. I had no intention of becoming a career cat 3 (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Besides, I wouldn’t want to be accused of sandbagging twice in the same year. Time to race with the big boys.