I’m working backwards – I drafted many of these as the season progressed… I enjoy writing, but I’m not enthused about editing…)
Race Report #20: Elk Grove Stage 1: Saturday, August 2. Category: Elite 1/2. Weather: 84 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, 2.85 miles circuit with two U-turns and two 90 degree corners. Distance, 49 miles, average speed 28.1mph, Max speed 39.1 mph. Average pulse 172, max pulse 192.
Over the last few years, Chicagoland has risen as the center of U.S. cycling, with races every weekend, nationals of various disciplines held here seemingly every year, and the most lucrative purses in all of domestic cycling. Topping all of these in terms of $$$ is the 3rd annual Elk Grove Cycling Classic with the single highest prize list of any race in the United States.
I must admit I was a little apprehensive registering for the pair of Elite Category 1/2 races after experiencing fairly serious high speed crashes on the final lap each of the last two years racing the event (and to think I have gone 300 races in a row without a crash in the past). Something about the narrow long, snaking course, and the large field full of aspiring 20-something riders looking for a shot at the massive paycheck ($45,000 in total) has repeatedly created a nervous, skittish racing environment fraught with danger.
The worst part about the peril during the Elk Grove series is that there is no predictability to these train wrecks. Most races you can pick the dangerous corners or sections of the course to avoid where crashes were likely to occur, but at Elk Grove, the entire circuit tends to feel like “running the gauntlet.” As prior Superweek champion and one of the U.S.’s best criterium racers Andy “the Volcano” Crater shouted to me during the middle of the race after a random explosive crash against the barriers on a straightaway, “Holy F*@! I’ve never seen worse riding or bike handling – this is some scary “sh*#!”
The fact that Andy was even having a conversation with me in the very back of the peleton belied the reality of the situation – the entire front half of the field was a gigantic assh*!# zone – a crush of riders repeatedly trying to find a route outside to the front, only to be confronted with the swirling winds accompanying a peleton traveling upwards of 33, 35 – even 37 mph, and like the fumerole behind a jet engine being sucked backward into the same compression they aimed to escape.
The long straight sections of the course at Elk Grove allowed for some extremely high speeds – particularly on the return half of the course. On laps 2 – 9 of the 18 lap race I consistently hit and held 36 and 37 mph down the mile long finish stretch. Each of these single file sprints had me in that unfortunately familiar state of acid-for-blood agony I’d experienced during Superweek. At one point as we hit the halfway point I looked over to see Michigan sprinter Ben Renkema suffering near me at the back of the field and I said, “I think I may get dropped.” He didn’t reply - instead he sprinted forward a few spots – perhaps realizing that being near me quite possibly meant being too far back. Ben remains my litmus test of a race – young and talented, and gifted/cursed with a similar set of fast twitch muscles, my basic sense of a race is that “If Ben gets dropped, then I’m OK – there is no chance in hell I could have stayed in.”
Given my tenuous position in the single file train near the back of the field I decided to trade my risk of getting dropped for the risk of crashing and slotted up about 60 spots on the backstretch right into the danger zone – or rather, where the danger zone had been on earlier laps.
Fortunately, the field had settled into the course a bit and it had become much safer in the front of the field. As we headed down the homestretch I was quite surprised to discover that instead of the 37 mph single file sprints I had been experiencing as the slinky re-compacted, there was a relatively sedate steady state of 32 mph two rider abreast situations that were completely manageable. I began to recover a little bit from the massive efforts of the first 25 miles.
As we entered the last two laps, I was physically drained and despite the relatively easier laps for the latter half of the race, I could tell that I had frayed my lungs and legs in that first 25 miles. But I set my jaw and determined to follow a certain discipline I knew: “Get in position to win.”
Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.
This principle is really the predecessor to Race Rule #3 – “Win it at the Line”. You can’t ‘win it at the line’ from 60th place. For a ‘roadie’, “get into position to win” may also imply “Make the breakaway” – I’m not exactly sure, nonetheless, let me make the attempt and share those elusive and counterintuitive elements of the breakaway art as I have witnessed through my experience watching them take place.
First – hang on for dear life during one of the hardest accelerations of the race where you are just about to get dropped. Then, just as you are about to get dropped…
Second - invent a new pair of legs and lungs and accelerate through the group and double your output as you now face the wind at the front of the peleton at over 30mph unsheltered from the draft.
Third - continue and accelerate as required to break completely off the front of the pack.
Fourth - now, make contact with the breakaway riders and enter the echelon rotation of the paceline facing that same wind for long periods each lap until the end of the race.
Honestly there can hardly be anything further from my experience.
Instead, let me tell you of the sprinter’s approach to placement in the peleton during the field sprint. For the roadie reader this is still relevant info: if you are not strong enough or lucky enough to make the breakaway, then you are stuck with the field sprint, and at this point you have to make the best of the cards you’ve been dealt.
Welcome to my world.
I have a very limited retinue of strengths. Interestingly, since my study of ‘strengths’ began about 3 years ago, there has been a pattern to my discovery – my list of weaknesses has grown by leaps and bounds, and my strengths have gotten ever more specific, isolated, and limited. Here’s a short list:
Wheelsucking: I’m definitely in the top 2 percentile when it comes to drafting.
Coasting: well, I suppose everyone is good at that.
Cornering: I’m probably in the top decile (10%) when it comes to cornering.
Short Intervals: I can produce a 1 - 3 second “pseudo-sprint” which, followed by a short rest, can be reproduced virtually ad infinitum without serious consequences. This also features into my ability to move up during and at the end of the race.
Max Power – <10 seconds: as indicated in other writings, as a sprinter, I can produce a significant amount of watts for 5 - 8 seconds – but one time only without significant rest.
My weaknesses would take a book to compile – basically I suck at anything not included in the list above, including, but not limited to: aerobic endurance, hill climbing, time trialing, long intervals, medium intervals, steady efforts, multiple sprints, fighting the wind, leading…
I do have one other strength that may actually be the single strongest tool in my arsenal: I can often predict where to be – in another man’s words, how to “get into position to win.”
Now, given my list of weaknesses above, ‘get into position to win’ guarantees me very little, but my short list of strengths above does help to deliver this Walden rule.
Back to Elk Grove: As probably the single most consistently skittish and dangerous peleton I’ve ridden, this circuit serves as a singularly great case study on “get into position to win.”
With one lap to go at Elk Grove I was in the rear guard of a dozen riders backing a compressed peleton ahead of 85+ riders twitching and convulsing through the long narrow course. As we crossed the line with one lap and 2.85 miles to go, suddenly the residue of the preceding 46 miles, the brutal long sprint efforts to hang on to the field on the homestretch, the wheezing in my lungs and hot goosebumps in my legs were forgotten. For the next 2/3’s of a lap what I faced was an effort of a different sort – like a game of Frogger or Tetris, my mission for the coming 2 miles remaining in the circuit was a combination of analytics and anerobics: to anticipate openings and find the energy to slot my body into those spaces.
This will probably sound odd to a roadie as this is probably the part of the race they hate the most, but for me it was like suddenly coming off life support – for the preceding miles I was just suffering, hanging on, desperately trying not to get dropped – and then the masochistic exercise in suffering for suffering’s sake was over and now it was time to use a different discipline: to answer the looming question of how, exactly to move safely through 80 riders compacted into a tight, dangerous mass – and do so safely.
One of the luxuries or perhaps a penance of being a sprinter is our relegation to the mid-peleton position. Without any need to focus on or consider breaking away, or the conditioning of rivals (everyone is stronger), or any real need to hover at the front, we are provided with ample time to scour and evaluate the course and actions of the peleton for weaknesses.
If it looks easy, sometimes, when I move up, that’s because it usually is – on a relative scale – I never move up on the “hard parts” unless out of desperation or it is the final sprint. For me, the dozens of laps preceding the finish are like a giant science project – how does the peleton move? What are its weaknesses? Where does it consistently slow? Most courses have their Achilles heels – places where the dynamics of the race create opportunities. Elk Grove had no Achilles heel – the whole thing was scary, fast, and dangerous. I had to use other opportunities.
The video to follow shows the sort of ‘slo mo’ version of the high speed nervous exercise that I went through on that last lap. The slow frame rate fails to capture virtually any of the relevant frenetic action in the peleton as we vibrated through those final two miles - coasting, sprinting, braking, bumping, crashing and sweating through those narrow boulevards at over 30 mph – sudden sways echoing through the field, the sudden hiss and burning smell of brakes, and rapid swings to avoid wheels and limbs. Nonetheless, what the video does capture is the suffocating closeness of the field preparing for the final sprint, the closed road ahead when it comes to moving up, the proximity of other riders, and the press of bodies blocking any forward progress.
The video starts about ½ mile past the start finish as we are about to enter the first of two U-turns on the course. Just to my right a couple riders cross wheels and almost go down – bodies bumping all around and then suddenly we are all leaning left and finding a path around the U-turn at about 8 mph. We then immediately sprint back up to 31, 32, 33 mph and I shift around in the back for a few moments trying to find a line forward through the pack. I don’t see much but decide to slot up the right – only to be shut down moments later against the curb.
I then resolve to the only recourse left available to me (no Achilles heel) – to move right through the middle of the field. For the next 90 seconds I wade right into and through the mashing mesh of bodies comprising the 85 rider ass*#@ zone the entire front of the field had become. What is hard to ascertain is when I’m accelerating quickly or when the field of riders and slowing - to the hiss and stink of burning brake pads.
So, what are the key mechanisms that enable the Walden rule of “Get into position to win?”
1) Shift down. This is the single most important part of moving through a crowded peleton. Tired limbs and ragged lungs prefer slower RPM’s, but, having the discipline to pedal rapid circles and taking on the additional aerobic burden it carries it provides the reward of being able to take advantage of opportunities before that of your fellow riders. When riders suddenly divide in front of you creating a Tetris-like body space – only the swiftest acceleration will garner that spot. Be that rider that fills in the gap…Do it 20 times and you can move through an entire peleton without feeling the wind…
2) Get a better view: ride on the hoods (upper part of the handlebars) with your head up. I never even realized I did this until someone gave me a hard time about it a few years ago. Riding head down makes perfect sense when in the front of the field or on a breakaway, but when trapped in the compression of the peleton, use the draft to get a good look around. This is probably the single easiest thing to do to aid you during this critical portion of the race. Visibility of the swaying patterns of the peleton is critical to being able to ‘read the tea leaves’ of the race and find a space to move up.
3) Broadcast your intended movements – herd the cats. Oddly most riders seem intent on maintaining their position – and if you, through your body language and the occasional hand gesture or touch on the hip – indicate a direction you wish to go, more often than not they’ll accommodate. For myself I use a combination of the “slow drift”, the flip of the hand, and the touch on the hip to try and create my path. Sometimes you’ll encounter the cycling equivalent of the ‘Chicago driver’ who actually goes counter to your intended movement and shuts you down – but they too are creating space and sometimes you can anticipate this reaction and quickly swing around them on the other side.
4) Use EVERYTHING to get into position: finally, and most importantly, be willing to use everything you have to get into position. As your body moves beyond its VO2 max and enters oxygen debt, it is easy to give into the physical and mental malaise that accompanies this searing agony and ‘settle in’ and hope that somehow, somewhere, an opportunity to get into position will emerge.
The single greatest lesson to be learned from this Walden rule is that you have to make it happen – and if necessary use every single ounce of energy at your disposal, sacrificing your actual sprint to get into position. Said differently, a ‘non-sprint’ from 3rd position as you blow up and drift backward is 99% more likely to land you a top ten position than a somewhat rested move from 25th.
Let me say this again with more urgency: there is NO POINT to sprinting from 30th… (unless you have just moved up from 60th with every ounce of your power.) The first priority for every single available ounce of your energy is to get into striking distance of the win – after that the subtleties of 10th vs. 5th vs. 1st around the final corner is a luxury to be considered for Walden Race Rule #3 (Win it at the Line!)
At Elk Grove, with thousands of dollars on the line on a dangerous course against hungry men 15 years my junior, we entered that desperate last lap and the peleton was erratic, frenzied. I moved from 80th to 70th , from 50th to 30th to 20th and then 90 seconds later swung all the way to the front before the set of corners that would determine the race outcome. I lit half of my match to get into position, and the other half to maintain it into the final corner. I had absolutely nothing left when we entered the sprint with 600 meters to go.
That is a simple statement, but let me paint it differently. With 600 meters to go in a huge money race I was sitting in a top 6 position – a race winning position – in the biggest amateur money race in the United States – sounds great – right? The other view is that with 600m to go in this huge race I was in an anaerobic oxygen debt filled chasm of fear – palapable fear – unlike anything we face in regular life.
Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom – and then of that last burst of frantic, lung burning energy as you exploded to the surface and finally breathed the fresh air of recovery.
Now imagine the same maneuver - doing that same impulsive set of thrumming kicks to break you back to the surface just as you are running out of air – but now knowingly doing them into a closed long tunnel between pools with nowhere to breathe – your lungs are on fire, your legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for the surface – but instead you duck lower and now you have another 50 feet of tunnel in front of you before you can rise to the surface.
This is asphyxiating fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – and deep inside panic starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – it tells you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there is no short cut and those that try to find one – by diving into corners or by taking them too fast – find disaster and wash up on the shores of the barriers. It is through exactly those kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at Elk Grove – not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning swimmer pulling me under.
It is this element of fear that makes this probably the hardest of all the Walden rules to follow...
The video starts after 1 to go, just before the first U turn - with a near crash. I’m in the back about 80th place and after the corner manage to move to first over the next mile - directly through the innards of the pack for the most part.
At 2:13, near the front, I finally sprint clear and find my way to Cat 1 extraordinaire Andy Crater’s wheel – (grey Menasha shorts) and use the first half of my one match that I have to burn. Andy Sprints up again at 3:17 (the second half of my match), and at 3:37 the pace picks up again (my final oxygen starved kick). We slow after that and then the final acceleration to the line begins at 4:12. By then I’m drowning and can barely see, much less respond.
Nonetheless this was a near perfect race in terms of positioning: I can hear Walden say it, “you have to get in position to win!” I end up 17th – getting passed by about 10 riders in the final 50 meters. Still – I picked up $150 – and while not ‘happy’ I was satisfied.