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Race report: Sturbridge, Go at the Pine Tree

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Race report: Sturbridge, Go at the Pine Tree

Old 04-29-07, 04:46 AM
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Race report: Sturbridge, Go at the Pine Tree

One aspect of bicycle racing that continually fascinates me is the dynamic interplay between cooperation, teamwork, and competition. And in this weekend's bicycle race in Sturbridge, MA the dynamic interplay of cooperation, teamwork, and competition unfolded in a unique fashion.

Yes, suprisingly, there is cooperation in a bicycle race....actually an amazing amount of cooperation that far exceeds the amount of competition. I would guesstimate that a bicycle race is about 95% cooperation. Some of the cooperation that occurs in a bicycle race is not entirely altruistic; the cooperation exists because of a common foe -- wind resistance. A rider not drafting behind another rider is expending about 30% - 50% more energy than a rider who is drafting. When you are racing at near your limit, the 30% drafting beneift is truly significant and it causes all bicycle racers, even those from different teams, to work together like a pack of geese. And you see the need to cooperate manifested in pack riding and pacelining.

The effect of wind resistance is so significant that it is extremely difficult to escape the pack, or peloton as it is called. I should qualify that: oh sure, it is easy enough to go out the back door of the peloton -- that is called getting "dropped." But to escape the pack in the front, now that is difficult. The peloton is like an amoeba and if a single rider tries to move forward, well the amoeba-like peloton just extends a pod with other riders following in the wake of the rider trying to escape and pulls them back. If you do manage to escape, then that is called a "breakaway" and you "drop" the others.

All of these things -- pack riding, pacelining, getting dropped -- are ahead in my race report if you choose to read on......

At the start of the race it is all friendly banter and joking. I see a few racers I recognize from the Battenkill-Roubaix of a few weekends back and we relive the agony of that trial. I resolve to get some prescription wraparound sunglasses so I can look less dorky and more stylish at my next race. The race official is giving instructions and cautions. He says if you crash the ambulance is on call and will help you in a minute. Gulp.

The parcours course today is about 28 miles (I think, my bike computer is on the blink). Four laps around a 7 mile loop. There are 2 main climbs: the first is a 1 mile long "dead horse hill" sort of climb, the second is a shorter but much steeper affair. Surely these hills will do the job of sorting the field. The other significant feature of the course is a wraparound 170 degree corner.

The race begins at a frantic pace and like a pack of wolves there is a shuffle in the pack. Riders move up on the outside edges, and the inside of the pack moves back in a continuous flow. This continues for several miles until the racers seem to become content with the order that is established. Then there is relative stability in the pack. In the pack, there is no wind, and it requires very little work to race along at this pace.

However the back of the pack there is some sort of slinky effect. There is a compression and slowing down at some spots, say the base of a hill or a sharp corner, and then a mad out-of-the-saddle sprint as the slinky extends as the front surges forward. These intermittent surges take their toll on me and others, and on some of these slinky-like compressions and extensions a few riders are not catching back on. They are getting dropped. I know I am seeing foreshadowing of my own fate.

On the second time around that 170 degree corner there is a crash and the pack separates to avoid him like water in a river avoiding a rock. Carnage. I slow and ask him, "Are you OK?" and he says, "Just sand". I look at his leg and it more than just sand. He has some road rash, some sand, some blood. He'll be OK.

I know I need to deal with these slinkly-like compressions and surges of the pack. Staying at the back, continually putting myself on the bubble, making myself a candidate to getting dropped, is not a recipe for success. One of these times I won't be able to chase back on. So I say to myself, "I need to participate in that moving up on the edge of the pack maneuver that everybody else seems to be doing." Up comes the short punchy climb and I decide ...time to play king of the hill. My turbo spins up and as the back of the pack slows at the base of the climb, the slinky compressing, I move to the edge and start climbing out of the saddle rocking the bike side to side showing my best climbing form. I go right around the edge passing rider after rider. Hey, I like this! And then I see it...the sharp end of the peloton, the front-end of the amoeba-like pack. It is mine for the taking! My brain begins to write a check that I don't know if my body can cash...I exert...go for it...and then it happens, I am at the front of the pack!. The pseudo pod of the great amoeba!

Being at the front of the pack was partly a wonderful feeling. To wear the maillot jaune on the road! 75 racers lined up in your wake! You are the locomotive on the train! But being at the front of the pack was also a little worrisome. The finish line was not for another 10 miles. And being at the front I am expending more energy than everyone else. So I soft peddle a bit and a rider passes me and I hop right on his wheel. This is nice, I am flying now, no more slinky like compressions and surging like at the back of the pack.

I recognize that it would take a truly explosive burst of energy to break the grip of the peloton. Every surge you make at the front the riders behind follow, the amoeba will not let you go. If you were able to jump off the front of the pack, escape, then that is called a breakaway, and I see how truly difficult a task that would be. Note to self: do not try a breakaway.

But even without attempting a breakaway, my time at the front was short-lived. The amoeba-like pack had decided to swallow me. Riders moved up along both sides moving forward, and the rider in front of me is slipping back. I went from front of the pack, the psuedo pod of the amoeba-like pack, to inside the pack, inside the belly of this amoeba....nucleus to the right, mitochondria to the left. This motion through the pack was relentless and I kept moving backward through the pack while the riders on both sides just kept moving forward. There didn't seem to be anything I could do. I was being digested. And then it happened, I am ejected out the back of the pack. Drats.

I try to chase back on. The ameoba-like pack is just ahead of me. I am peddling frantically but not gaining ground. I can see the riders ahead of me in the pack are coasting, just peddling intermittently, safely ensconced in the pack. Argh. Wait for me Mr. Amoeba Peloton! I was your psuedo pod at the front just a few moments before! Heartless creature. I am dropped. Sigh.

The neutral support vehicle toots its horn at me. Yeah yeah, I know.... I move to the side of the road to let them pass. Then goes the race official vehicle to follow the main mass of our group. Sigh. I am alone. The race is ahead of me. I am off the radar screen. A nobody.

Still, I keep at, keep riding hard. And soon like Cheerios in a bowl of milk that begin to clump together a small group or racers begins to form. This is a mixed group, I think, some cat 5 35+ riders from my group, possibly some riders from other groups. Technically, I don't think you are allowed to work with riders from other categories, but whatever. We are about 6 or 8 riders now. A silly joke pops into my head, "What do you call 2 bicycle riders? A race!" Well if 2 people on a bicycle are a race, then certainly 6 or 8 riders is a race. A paceline forms and we are zooming along again. The race is on again!

A racer is now coming towards us and I am puzzled at this. Are we lost? Is he lost? Upon seeing us he turns around and goes in the other direction. Hmmm...this is weird. As we pass him I start to say something but he speaks first, "I was in a bad crash....". He is confused now, he doesn't know where he is or which way to go. I get it now: more carnage.

Ahead is a hill and like a meteor hurtling through the earth's atmosphere the paceline hurls itself at the hill. The heat is on at the front of this meteor and chunks are flaking off, not all the riders in this group are going to make it over together.

Underneath my wheels I see spraypainted on the road "3K", 3 kilometers to the finish. I start to do the math to convert into miles but I realize it doesn't matter -- this is it, the race is almost over. I move to the back of this paceline. This time the motion to the back is not prelude to getting dropped again, it is intentional; I am resting. Well, not out and out rest, my heart rate is zone 4 minimum I estimate. But at the back it only takes some intermittent pedalling to stay attached to this group. This resting is not out of laziness or fatigue or some frugal need to conserve energy at others expense. Every ounce of energy I save in the next minute I intend to spend with great abandon.

We zip around a corner and I see ahead of me about 1k....police sirens flashing, ambulance sirens flashing, people on the sides of the road clapping and shouting encouragement, clinking cow bells, children watching, tent canopies.....the road is dead flat and wide open. This is the finish.

Another silly childhood joke suddenly pops into my head: "Two guys are being chased in the woods by a man-eating tiger. One of the guys stops and starts to put on his sneakers. The other guy says, 'Why are you putting on your sneakers? You can't outrun a tiger!'. The first guy says, 'I know I can't outrun the tiger, I just need to outrun you!" Metaphorically, the tiger is right on our heels you can feel his breath. I am putting on my sneakers, we all are. Over 1 hour of cooperative riding behind us, but there is going to be 15 seconds of competition just ahead.

I tell myself to think of this as a townline sprint on a friendly group ride. I can do this. I see a big pine tree about halfway and my ridiculously simple tactic forms -- go at the big pine tree. We are hurtling down this straightaway in a single line full tilt, me at the back. I need to exercise patience. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Pine tree. Go! Go! Go! I surge forward until I am 6 inches from the wheel in front of me and then tilt left slightly. My front wheel pulls even with the rider in front of me. I am flat out maxed out, my legs are burning, my lungs are gasping for air, but I need to try still harder. I need to open that suitcase of courage and pull out that little something something. I drop one rider now. I drop two. I see someone scrambling for my wheel. I turn left more to make it more difficult for him to get in my draft. No wheelsuckers, not now. I drop three. I see the finish line. Just a little more. Someone flashes past me. The white line passes beneath my wheels, and it is over. Ah...now that was fun!

I don't know my exact placing, but I suspect I am in the lower third, maybe the lower quartile, of the racers in my category. Maybe just 5-10 minutes off the winning time. I am just a smidgen off the strength and speed required to really stay with this group. It is just my 2nd race, it will take time, I have some dues that I need to pay.

I am getting faster, gaining valuable pack riding experience, and having fun. I'll try to do better next time!

Oh, I just wanted to throw in a link to my Cycle For Shelter Charity Ride sponsorship page...it's a good cause.


Last edited by michael01612; 04-29-07 at 05:19 AM.
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