I once read somewhere that you should not be trying to win a Category 5 race. Cat 5 races are for gaining experience and learning, rather than achieving results. Beginning racers need to learn to negotiate riding in a pack, holding lines in tight turns, and coping with the extremely high intensity. But make no mistake: I was racing the Louisville Criterium Cat 5 race to win.
It turns out that I finished 3rd. Initially I was pretty jacked about this result. But after a little time to reflect on it, I see some things I could have should have would have done better. Plus, I’m trying to maintain the perspective that it was only a Cat 5 race… with a field of 23 other novices… for only 20 minutes. Not exactly epic. But I am excited about the result and even more excited about what I learned from the experience. So I truly managed to achieve the best of both worlds. The following is a report on the entire experience.
This was only my second criterium ever. The first was the City Park Crit last summer, which was a combined 4/5 race that I absolutely got shelled in. I knew I would be outclassed and only entered it (at the absolute last minute) at the prodding of a neighbor, and because it was pretty much in my backyard, and because I wanted to support the Rocky Mountain Road Club and Team Cycleton. They were co-sponsoring the race and I’ve gotten to know several members of both teams through my two local group rides, Park Hill Peloton (PHP) and the Frustrated Dad Ride (FDR). I was glad to go contribute my $35 entry fee for the privilege of having my cardio-pulmonary system eviscerated. Mission accomplished.
But my approach to this race was much more deliberate. Ordinarily I have little interest in criteriums; my goals are more focused on a couple longer road races later this Spring and Summer. But I wanted to get some race experience, and I wanted to validate the hard-work and training discipline I’ve demonstrated over the past two months. And I really wanted to answer some lingering doubts about whether I should even be trying to become a racer. So I signed up several days in advance. I planned and staggered my weeks training activities to align with a race day on Saturday. I minded my nutrition. I even stretched! I cleaned and lubed my bike. I was ready. And then the wife and I went out to dinner with another couple Friday evening which extended into a pretty late night of over-indulging at multiple bars in our neighborhood. With each course of food and cocktails I kept telling myself, ‘it’s only 20 minutes.’ By the third bar this self-dialogue changed to ‘it doesn’t start until 2:00pm.’ By the fourth bar, it was ‘it’s only a Cat 5 race.’
So I woke up feeling less than 100%. But I did what I could to right the ship and got my systems stabilized. As the hours ticked by, I felt myself becoming more and more nervous, and I was convinced that any damage done the night before would be over-ridden by adrenaline. I’ve learned through my 36 years of athletic mediocrity that I’m at my best when I’m nervous. It makes me a 7.5 instead of just a 6. So my anxiety was oddly comforting.
Naturally I left 15 minutes later than I had planned. And I didn’t really know where I was going or how long it would take to get there. So this was the second mistake in my preparations. But I made it to the race without incident and had about 40 minutes to get signed in and warmed up. One of the challenges of being a Cat 5, other than our general lack of skill, is that we are clueless about where or how to sign in and how to pin our numbers on our jerseys once we finally get them. So I wasted time just wandering around. The tension was building, as was the pressure on my bladder. Where the heck do I go to pee around here? (My apologies to the owner of that beige Isuzu Trooper – I would have picked a different car had I known you were in it.)
Serendipitously, I ran into Stephen Fitzgerald at sign in. Stephen is perpetually happy and upbeat, and he has ultra-high credibility as a racer, so I was glad to see him. He took pictures (shocker). And he offered advice… lots of advice. I think I heard maybe 10% of it. I was sincerely grateful for it, but I was so damn nervous and was totally preoccupied with my need to warm-up and a handful of other practicalities. Time was ticking and my nerves were in a frenzy. Stephen is still talking. Where should I put my bag? Stephen is still talking. How do I pin this number on? Stephen is still talking. Should I keep my fleece vest on while I warm-up? Still talking…. Somewhere in this dialogue he mentioned that he had done the 1-2-3 race, and was getting ready to also race the 3s. He said something about ‘amortizing time’ but my brain melted before I could process it. He’s racing TWO ultra-hard categories? And I haven’t even done a warm-up lap for my puny little 20 minute race? I’m not sure if he could sense my anxiety or not, but he pointed me in the direction of a large hill and wished me luck.
On the hill I ran into another Cat 3 racer I know from PHP. We chatted and he gave me some more concise advice. And then I got out on the course and did a couple laps. After my second pee break – this time on an unoccupied tree on the west side of the course – I got back on the road and saw yet another PHP wheelmate. He calmly offered his advice. So now with a full head and an empty bladder, it was time to make my way to the start line.
Because my warm-up was delayed by my late departure, Stephen Fitzgerald, and my bladder, I was a little late to the start line. I was starting three rows back. How the hell does that happen? Just how big is this field? Oh God, why does that guy have an $8,000 Pinarello? Why does that guy have deep dish carbon tubulars? Why does that guy have an aero skin suit? Agghhh! I thought this was supposed to be a novice level race! But Stephen’s camera was also there, which was a pleasant distraction. ‘Eye of the Tiger’ came on the loudspeaker and Stephen shouted “hey Rob, it’s your song!” How did he know that?
The race started a little more timidly than I anticipated. I had hoped to be top 5 by the first corner, but due to my position had to settle for top 10. Right on cue, Cat 5 chaos ensued. No carnage, just guys flying all over the place instead of holding steady lines. I knew I had to move up, but I went into the 2nd turn too cautiously and they came out so fast that I had to really dig just to reattach. We went up the backside climb at a brisk pace and I felt pretty good. I could see the guy on the front looking over shoulder and instantly knew that he was in over his head. By the top of the climb I actually employed some of Stephen’s advice and moved up.
I was top 5 or 6 by the start of the 2nd lap and stayed there the rest of the way. It was beautiful. I was NEVER on the front. It wasn’t because I was unwilling to do my share, but guys would come from behind and go all the way to the front, while guys on the front would drop pretty far back. So I just assertively, if not aggressively, maintained my position and used every wheel available to me, which was one other piece of advice I received beforehand. My positioning is something I’m really proud of; my time at PHP and FDR really helped me with pack riding. I tried to watch to see who was a contender and who was a liability. After a few laps I began to notice patterns. But I also realized that I had under-estimated the level of my competition. I was suffering a good bit, but not horrifically. I caught myself checking the clock to see how much time was left. This was more as a means of survival, not as a means to plan my attack.
In the last two laps one guy took a flyer. I considered very briefly going with him, but I didn’t think he was a legitimate threat, and if he was, he must be a total animal who would just crush me anyway. So I held my spot. Then on the last lap, the eventual runner-up attempted some moves. And then on the final climb the eventual winner was on the front of the group setting the pace.
To this point I had managed the race PERFECTLY. I was exactly where Stephen told me to be – top 5 at the bottom of the finish hill. But… I completely wasted my effort because I failed to do anything with it. There were a couple other guys attempting attacks, but the three of us caught them and the original solo attack pretty far before the line. We had to dodge a ton of lapped riders, which was harrowing. And I could feel someone coming up on me, so I put in one final dig towards the line. To my surprise I felt like we were closing on the top 2, but I really can’t be sure. I crossed the line with the 4th place guy moving up on my right side. So I got to do that that thing where you throw your bike forward to edge someone out. Very pro.
I finished 3rd, less than 1 second off the leader. I was absolutely redlined*, but thrilled to have earned a spot on the podium. I had told Stephen earlier in the week that I wanted to be the first Rodeo member to accomplish that. I’m not sure if he knew how serious I was, but it was a major goal and I feel gratified in accomplishing it. But I recognize that while it was the first, there will most certainly be a more remarkable one by one of our more seasoned riders. Someone will podium in a more much epic fashion than by simply sucking wheels for only 20 minutes in a Cat 5 race. Someone will do it in true Rodeo style. But nevertheless I now own the honor of being first, and I’m going to cherish it.
(*Editorial Note: If anyone witnessed this differently, please forgive me. I can’t be held accountable for my hypoxic misinterpretations of reality.)
I cruised around for my “cool down” (something I observed ‘real’ racers do via Strava.) And when I came back to the finish, I was excited to relay my result to Stephen and the other Cat 3s who had offered advice. I basked in my glory, but had a minor amount of doubt that I was truly on the podium, so I anxiously awaited the official results. One thing I’ll say about Without Limits Productions, they had their collective s#!t together and got them posted right away on a monitor right at the finish line. Confirmation! Podium! Success!
Now I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to continue my cool down, but it was getting in the way of my self-congratulating. Where is the podium? Will they take a podium picture? I mean, we’re only Cat 5s. Will the winner and runner-up even stick around for it? Are they as shallow as I am? Should I ask the race staff if they take podium pictures of Cat 5s? Does that make a me douche for wanting them to? Does that make me even more of a douche for asking?
After debating this for another 10 minutes I decided to stroll down to the registration area and began working up the courage to ask. I pretended to pour over the results for about 2 seconds before someone came on the loud speaker and said they needed blah blah blah blah and Rob Boydston to the podium. Hazaah! Salvation! I don’t even have to ask! But are the other two guys even around for this? They’d better no ruin the pic by not showing up. I’m still amped, so I’ll go ahead and change into my running shoes for the photo, because that’s pro. Of course they start announcing names and I’m still tying them. And I have to shed this vest so I can represent the brand new Rodeo kit!
I made the point of saying “Can you tell we’re Cat 5s, we don’t know what we’re doing.” This got a good response, though I wonder if they weren’t laughing at me instead of with me. It was awfully cliché, and definitely not very pro. Definitely douche. I asked someone to take pictures with my cell phone. The winner looked completely comfortable on the top step of the podium – as if he had been there before. And the runner-up did a bunch of different gestures that exaggerated the Cat 5 cluelessness. They turned out pretty funny and I had no idea that it was going on in real time. And then there’s me… on the bottom rung. With my arms dangling like a knuckle dragger. ‘Can you tell me which way to the weight room?’ WTF!?!?! I’m not sure if I’m literally puffing my chest or what. Whatever the case, I don’t look natural at all, and certainly not pro. Douche.
We chatted afterwards and the other two guys were very friendly. After a lifetime of second and third places in whatever event, I’ve found that it’s easier to swallow defeat if your opponents are respectable. And both of these chaps were class acts that I hope I get to race with again. And for what it’s worth, I think the finish order was spot on. The runner-up’s attempts didn’t net him the win, but had enough strength to recover and get 2nd. Above all things, he TRIED something. The winner spent a lot of time on the front setting the pace, particularly towards the end. So for him to have the strength to close it out is pretty impressive. He deserved the win.
Once I had a little time to absorb it, I realized how fantastic of an experience this was. The podium was nice, but it was only a Cat 5 race so the bragging rights really don’t go too far. But I feel like I’m taking a lot of value away from it. Here are the biggest lessons learned:
- Cornering. I need to develop this skill. I shaved too much speed in each corner and had to work too hard so I could get back to my primary skill of sucking wheels. I got better as the race progressed, but it’s definitely something I need to work on.
- Tactics. I didn’t try a damn thing, which was a total waste of my effort to stay in position. Stephen told me how it would unfold, and how I should play it. And I’ll be damned if he wasn’t spot on. But I didn’t execute on the last piece of his advice. I should have attacked at the beginning of the hill. This could have ultimately backfired on me, but on the other hand I could have possibly gapped the leaders and held them off to the line. But since I didn’t even try, I’ll never know. So I learned that you can’t just put yourself in position and hope that good things happen. You have to put yourself in position and then MAKE them happen.
- Community. Integral to this experience were some really amazing guys whom I’ve met through PHP and FDR. They were extremely generous with their advice and encouragement, and then the subsequent feedback through social media. I stuck around to watch the Cat 3 race thinking I might learn a thing or two. But I found myself so wrapped up and emotionally invested in the performance of my friends that I didn’t really pay that much attention to the tactics. I was thrilled to see one friend in an early break. And Stephen was all over the place pulling moves back and trying to find a break of his own. A third friend had a rough day, but I admired him for riding it out and finishing.
In the end, cycling is a sport to some, a hobby to others, and a lifestyle for many. But for all it should be fun, and that’s often dictated by the stimulation of new experiences and the quality of the people we share them with. I’m sure Rodeo has a core value relating to this, so no further explanation is necessary. I do sincerely look forward to getting to know more of you and sharing in your successes.