Wednesday Night Crits at the Pelladrome

This past Wednesday, BPaul and I headed to West Chicago, for the Wednesday night crits at the Pelladrome.  What is the Pelladrome, you ask?  It’s an industrial park by the Pella windows facility in West Chicago that, due to the economy, only has one building on it.  There is a nice oval asphalt roadway intended to serve a number of commercial sites, which is basically unused.

North is to the top, in that picture.  Laps are done clockwise, with the start/finish basically where the green marker is.  On Wednesday, the wind was pretty strong and out of the South/Southwest…so you’d start, make the 90 degree turn at the upper right corner of the picture and immediately head into the wind…take the next gentle curve into the wind, do the back stretch with a strong angular crosswind, loop the next curve with a 90 degree crosswind, shoot the fourth curve with a tailwind, and then hit the home stretch with an angular tailwind.  One loop is around 8/10 of a mile.  Here’s the home stretch:

Temps were in the 90s, with a blowdryer wind and some nice, hot asphalt to ride on.  Here’s BPaul warming up:

The Ridley, ready for action.

Yours truly, getting ready to line up:

Note that I’m sporting NCC colors.  I’m not entirely certain that this is the kind of publicity that a bike shop wants, but at least I was riding slowly enough that people could read my jersey.

My whole jersey.

At least I look the part.  Kind of.

They have 3 “races.”

The first race is the Cat 5 race.  Those who have 10 or fewer ‘group start’ races under their belt, such as yours truly, line up at the front, and take off.

The second race is a mixed race.  Cat 4/5 line up at the front and are started, with Cat 1/2/3 behind.  When the Cat 4/5 group is about halfway around the track, the Cat 1/2/3 are set off.  The gist of this race is staying in front of the Cat 1/2/3 as long as possible, and if/when they catch you, you try to hang onto the lead group.

The final race is the open race.  All riders start together, en masse, and the race is off.

I learned a number of things in my first outing at the Pelladrome.  These are all “well, d’uh” kind of lessons–but in thinking through the night, they are lessons that, while obvious, are nonetheless important to contemplate.

1.  Don’t Pull.  I really can’t subscribe to this theory, but it is a dominant one.  In the first lap of the Cat 5 race (and I use the term “race” loosely throughout this post), it was nearly a competition to see who could ride the slowest…and who would pull.  As it ended up, they called a sprint on the first lap, so on the back straight, when I got sick of riding 12mph, I picked up the pace to ~20mph.  When I rounded the 3rd corner, I picked up the pace to ~25mph, and looked over my shoulders–no takers.  Rounding out the fourth corner, I upped the pace to around 28 mph and held it steady.

2.  If you’re going to Sprint, Sprint.  I had thought that no one was going to challenge on that first sprint…so I had just raised my pace to something that was sustainable, and did not prepare to sprint.  About 50 yards from the start/finish, there was an attack that I, frankly, was unprepared for.  In retrospect, regardless of whether anyone else was attacking, if I was going for that first sprint, I should have sprinted, and not tried to ride it in at a steady speed.  Hence: if you’re going to sprint, sprint.  I don’t have enough juice in my legs to wait it out and respond to a late effort from someone.

3.  If you want to stay on the lead, stay on the lead.  Off that first sprint, 2 riders went (BPaul and another gent).  I had anticipated that the ‘peloton’ would up its speed and run them down rapidly, so I decided to conserve energy and did not sprint to catch that 2 person breakaway.  This was a mistake.  In retrospect, if it’s a short race that I want to be competitive in, I would work to stay on the lead riders no matter what.  Tactics can only do so much when the race is 6-7 miles long.

4.  If you want to ride faster, ride faster.  During the winter, I did the indoor nationals at NCC.  In that competition, I rode above my ability, because of my personality.  Riding on a trainer, with no risk of crashing or wiping out, I was able to completely focus on pedaling, and was able to fully exert myself to 100% of capacity.  When I would sprint at the end of a ride, or muscle up the last, insanely steep climb, I was pushing into the zone where your eyesight starts to go red, and your head feels like it’s going to explode.  I was doing that because there were no consequences to reaching 100%–I could push as hard as possible, and the worst that could happen would be falling off a stationary bike.  Riding on the road again this summer, I’m finding that I rarely push myself to anywhere near 100%.  Even on sprints and fast rides, I’m holding back.  I think I could ride faster if I simply chose to ride faster–to burn more–to push harder.  I’m going to experiment with that a bit, in the coming weeks, still keeping a safety margin so I don’t wipe out a group of my friends.

5.  The less you brake, the less you slow down.  Yup.  I felt very confident diving into corners on the Ridley–it handles like it is on rails.  With smooth, clean asphalt, there were a number of times when I was able to overtake other riders as they braked to go through the first corner.  I’m finding that oftentimes, riding a bike is like dogfighting (airplanes–think Top Gun, not Michael Vick), in that the key to doing well is energy management.  In an airplane, energy is measured in speed and altitude; you can trade speed for altitude, or altitude for speed.  How you expend your energy has a huge impact on whether or not you are able to outfight an opponent.  In biking, we don’t have so much control over altitude, but we can control our braking, our application of power, our drafting…we control when and how we burn our matches.  Thinking more carefully about how I use what power I have is going to have an impact on riding.  If I can carry more speed through a corner by not braking, that is less energy that I have to expend to get back up to speed after the corner.

For the final, all-in race, here’s the group circling the back stretch of the Pelladrome.

When we started the last race, the announcer immediately called out a sprint lap…that meant that there was a sprint competition the first time we came across the start/finish line.  In that picture above, I’m on the outside line, about 20% back from the front, in the pack.  We rounded that next (third) corner, and I could see the guys at the front of the pack.  They weren’t speeding up.  They weren’t sprinting.  I knew it was a sprint lap, and I couldn’t understand why no one was going.  Having learned my “if you’re going to sprint, sprint” lesson, I dropped 2 gears and started hauling.

As we rounded the fourth corner and picked up a tailwind, I was cranking–about 32mph–and no one was giving chase.  I flew past the leaders on that lap and, quite serendipitously, happen to have a picture of me pulling to the front just before the start-finish line.  So yes, that really happened.

I then found out why no one in the group was going for it…unbeknownst to me, there were 2 riders who had taken off the front at the very, very beginning, who were a good 1/4 lap out in front.  So in effect, I had just done a massive effort sprint for third place.  On the first lap.  I also have a picture of me at the point where I realized what had happened:

The other interesting phenomenon of the last race, being a longer race, was how the Cat 3/4/5 guys rode it.  I rode as hard as I could to stay on the pack for as long as I could, and we were averaging ~23-24 mph per lap (slower into the wind, faster with the wind).  When I lost the ability to hang on, I kept riding as hard as I could, albeit by myself (the pack had dissolved into many little groups).  At that point, I was averaging ~21mph, which was my maximum sustainable effort, this being my third race of the night.

I noticed that most guys who fell off the pace would go to the outside, take a lap sitting up and pedaling very slowly (as in ~10mph), and would then sprint back into the race, a lap down, and try to get on a fast group.  In retrospect, that probably is a better approach to building speed and sprint abilities for criteriums than my steady-state effort approach.  I do know, clearly, that I need to work on my sprint efforts.  I think sprinting is going to become my full-time solo-ride pursuit, replacing the ‘long slow miles’ and ‘max sustainable pace for 30 miles’ type rides.

The “don’t pull” comment is one that I’m not going to take to heart.  I’m still going to pull, and I’m still going to carry my share of the load.  But in a race…

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