Events: Smoketown's Wily Turn
(2015) My first official cycling race went horribly wrong. As a matter of fact, I may as well have been considered DNS: Did Not Start.
It was a poorly run race in Doylestown, PA that went around Central Park in the days prior to the 202 Bypass. The route itself was lovely. It had nearly everything a road racer could want. Everything, that is, excluding heavy rain and a severe thunderstorm that parked itself right over the race. By severe, I mean legitimately terrifying.
The race went down Wells Road, then up a slight hill into a fast, off-camber downhill turn. It had rained heavily in the moments leading up to the start of the race so the corner was wet. The peloton was casual entering the turn when suddenly I found myself on the road sliding through the corner. I think I took out at least one other rider as evidenced by the Zipp 404s parked on my shoulder.
Not only was it a fast turn, not only was it off-camber, not only was it wet, but to add to my misery, there was a large spot of oil on the racing line which reached up and pulled my front wheel out from under me. Even though the race’s official start was about a mile away, I couldn’t chase back on after fixing a dropped chain back. I pulled out on lap two, but officially I could’ve been considered out of the race before the start. Off-camber wet turns are a jarring memory for me.
Eager to get a couple early races under my belt for 2015, I registered for the Smoketown Airport Criterium. It’s a lovely racecourse that has quite a bit of deception to it. While the runways total for under one mile, it feels longer. The finishing stretch out of the final turn is longer than it looks and many riders misjudge its length in the finishing sprint. It can be demoralizing to sprint out of the turn up toward the finish only to see the 400M sign and think, “That is much farther than I thought it was” despite seeing it twenty times or so in the race.
The course is in the shape of a backward “P” and turns two and three can be tricky as one will be inside on one turn but outside on the other. And speaking of turns, do I even need to mention the main feature of the course? The race heads down the shortest straightaway, which is downhill, and comes into an off-camber 180-degree turn to finish off a lap. It’s not unusual to come into this turn thirty miles-per-hour or more. It’s not unusual to have riders clear out in front as he may lose front tire traction or gets antsy and puts a pedal down too soon. It’s also normal to exit the corner in the grass for a couple feet before regaining a spot in the group. It is a fun course.
With Smoketown being a BAR championship race there were quite a few riders showing up for points. This would be my first race with another Sunnybrook Trek / Limerick Chiropractic teammate present, John, whom I would be quite close to throughout the race. Other than his going to the front, I planned to remain out of sight until the final laps. This plan had to work. It works for the big names in the spring classic races. No big names are even uttered until they mysteriously pop out of the bunch and percolate to the front of the race in the waning kilometers. This would be how I approached it. Plus if I picked the right lines, I could avoid any possible eager riders who would wind up sliding out of the hairpin turn.
One concern did make itself present though. Not long after the start, it began to mist slightly. This concern was authentic. It had not rained in our area for weeks. Pollen was deep enough on my car for friends to write obscenities on the back window so it was legible from many feet away. The runway is not used frequently. Whose to say this rain wouldn’t make it extremely slippery? Suddenly thoughts of old came back. Downhill. Off-camber. Turn. Rain. Disaster.
My dad was gracious enough to join my visit to Lancaster County. He positioned himself on the outside of the final turn for pictures at my recommendation. This was beneficial because I threw my sunglasses to him at one point. They were covered with road grime. No sooner did I throw them away than the precipitation stopped. Correlation does not imply causation.
The race goes as follows: a considerable pace into the first turn, carried by the speed into the second and third turn. The bunch lets the downhill do the work and the speed picks up. Riders position themselves as far right to straighten out the downhill turn. Naturally everyone else tries that and the bunch turns together. Then everyone stands on it to the 400M mark and the group comes back together. This is where everyone looks around to see if an attack will come. This process repeats nineteen more times.
As easy as it sounds, I regularly found myself looking over my shoulder entering the 180-degree turn, only to see nobody back there. The race got smaller each lap. It felt like a miss-and-out race at the track. Despite going down the backstretch last, I would be mid-pack crossing the line and going into turn one nearly every lap.
So the rain came and went and the pack was whittled down. Two riders went off the front. It seemed like the group decided this was no big deal. Everyone looked around. I had no reason to go to the front so I stayed near the back sheltered from the wind. As the laps ticked away, so too did the leaders. They built up a lead of thirty seconds, and still nobody chased it down. I stated the obvious to the guys next to me: “Guess we’re all racing for third?” Even that didn’t spark concern. With five laps to go the gap kept getting bigger.
Interested in injecting a pursuit, I predictably used the downhill straightaway to go to the front and try to pick up speed. Putting faith in holding the inside line of the hairpin, I stood up to sprint out of the turn realizing that 400 meters is longer than it looks. Nobody took the bait and all I did was slide to the back tired and hoping not to get dropped.
The bell-lap sounded and the group realized it was a sprint for the final podium spot, which I watched, from the back of the pack. I decided to leave my result as is. Everyone had raced smartly and drama-free. That’s not an easy feat considering rain and the bottom-of-the-hill turn.
Smoketown is certainly a race that is recommended. It’s not often that the pre-race safety speech includes directions on what to do if a plane ignores the “Airport Closed” calls and tries to land (We were supposed to ride into the grass away from the center of the runways). The course’s unique business of being deceptive is reason enough to register. Plus its place on the race calendar helps with confidence building for the upcoming season. Also the surface is quite smooth leaving one less factor to worry about. Furthermore, the event is well run. With free breakfast, free parking, and a closed race circuit, what more does a racer need to be convinced that Smoketown Airport Criterium is worth its entry fee? Still not convinced? You can always cheer yourself up at the Bird-in-Hand Farmer's Market on the way home.