Events: South Mountain Cycle & Café Criterium
(2018) I asked if anyone knew whether the snake was dead before we raced or during? No one seemed to know, but everybody admitted to seeing it. This week saw my team and I return to the oh-so-perfect Rodale Fitness Park in Trexlertown, PA, for the next challenge of the season, the South Mountain Cycle & Cafe criterium.
If I’m honest I’ll say I was fighting nerves. I had two DNFs to my name in the last three starts. The one success was a time trial, which is a discipline pretty hard to DNF short of an exploding bike. My goal was to be there at the end. It didn’t help to check the race predictor and see my name at the bottom of the forecasted finisher’s order. The day was deceptively warm - muggy in the way that wet patches had yet to dry in the mid-day shade. This was not my wheelhouse.
With having a teammate I made no qualms about my usefulness. I had to concentrate on my needs for a bit. Those feelings would change for the better shortly into the race. I made it known my plan was to stay in the back and was rebuffed with the comment of, “That is possibly the worst idea on this course.” Truth. I had crashed out my last time at Rodale because I was in the back.
As we lined up, and after we had received the speech, the rider to my left looked beyond me to the girl lined up in front of me. “Hey is that a broken spoke?” She stepped off the bike right as the whistle blew. It was going to be that kind of race. Race director Chip Brezeny had asked the first few laps to be easy for his sake. In all actuality it was a pedestrian pace. Coming around to complete lap one the referees flashed the yellow card to alert the field of a rejoining rider. It was the girl with the broken spoke coming back into the race.
To do a lap around Rodale consists of wide sweeping turns where riders never get out of the big ring. From the start line is a short stretch into a sweeping left turn. A likewise flat, right sweeping turn follows it. Elevation comes to play with an uphill ramp into a deceptive uphill left-hand turn. At the top of the turn is a downhill right-left-right into the woods. This part makes me think of a Florida swamp as the left turn takes us into the pine forest and an uphill. The final turn is a fast left-hander that brings the front stretch and finish line into view. It’s all over in a little more than two minutes. Luckily there are grassy shoulders that riders use regularly. Today was no exception.
The course itself lends interesting effects. One could be hanging on the back one lap and leading the next. One could be losing contact with the field only to shoot around everyone in one corner to find oneself inexplicably on the front. (This happened once when I was too zealous to race and fired off the front during neutral. I DNFd a few laps later.) There has also been the awful event of taking a hard pull with the intention of dropping back only to see the train ride by. First to last. This nearly happened today. Or one could sit comfortably in the pack, blocked from wind, and get pulled along lap after lap and conserve energy. The risk is that if someone gets squirrely, things get ugly.
The pace was comfortable at the outset. As the pace picked up and I took a wheel I had followed in other races across the years, I was not surprised to find myself on the front taking a long pull. I had no designs to take off. I kept thinking if anyone was unsatisfied with the pace I left plenty room for them to come around. Each lap saw riders come farther off the inside groove of the final turn. Shortly after settling in and dropping back – nearly getting dropped as I said – another mechanical blend took place. This one was a bit more exciting as riders were strung across the course giving few options for those on the inside. The rider hopped back in with a little shoulder bumping in the bunch.
As usual the race had its temperaments. There were bunching-ups. There were riders off the front. At one point three guys opened up a remarkable gap. The group remained calm and pulled it back over several laps. The cross wind went against the breaks. There were at least two moments when the field was a solid line. It would accordion back into a bunch.
With the laps winding down I saw one of my teammates moving up. I was hoping to rotate through to his wheel, but it never happened. I was prepared to quickly ask him if there was anything I could do to help him. With two laps to go the pace got serious. There was nearly a touch of wheels that played out into my favor and opened up a hole on the inside line. I saw that spot as mine for the rest of the race. I was going to be militant in guarding it.
The line was exactly what I wanted. It was the inside line all around the track except for the sweeping right-hander. Instead of cross wind here it was cross tailwind. Up the hill I felt like I rode the edge of the asphalt offering no chance to any rider to sneak up the inside. Down the elevation and I was shielded from the wind. I was getting excited now. Even though I was in the back I had a chance for the money. Each lap riders had come a full lane away from the final turn. I knew I could hold it tight to the inside with momentum.
Into the pine forest I hugged the wheel in front of me waiting for the bow wave of riders to slide toward the outside of the course. I scooted forward on the saddle, ready for a sprint that would see me go from worst to first. Here came the finish curve; everyone was lining up the violent sprint. I remained inside and waited for the hole to open. For a brief moment there it was. Time to go. And just as quickly as the door opened, it was slammed shut by a slower rider. I kept his wheel hoping something would open up around him. Nothing did but I sprinted anyhow.
I did not finish last as the race predictor had forecasted. I was quite close to the winner, and that’s a good feeling to build on. I was happy that the race went off without an issue, though there was a tire mark on the backstretch that wasn’t there before the race started. During the cool down it was revealed there was also a dead snake that wasn’t there when the race started, though that is debatable.
I didn’t finish on the podium, but I felt comfortable. The venue is great for anyone looking to get in a quick race. It’s where the Thursday night pick-up crit takes place and several weekends have racing on the calendar. During the cool-down, I realized the woman next to me was the one with the spoke issue. I asked if she went to another rear wheel. She coolly stated she just wound it around the adjacent spoke. I had to laugh. Also during the cool-down, as residents began taking to the park’s course, there was the snake that was run over. There are quite a few obstacles thrown at riders during races at Rodale, this is the first time a snake became one. The fact that no one could answer if it happened in our race was a good sign. We had such a focused group, no one around could say with certainty when it happened. We were all focused on trying to win.