Byron's Dartmouth Race Report
Last weekend we headed to scenic New Hampshire and Vermont for the ECCC's penultimate race weekend. On the menu was last year's brutal ITT, the classic Frat Row crit, and a new road race course that I hadn't seen before.
The ITT was actually cut short this year because the dirt climb section had been re-graded and gravel had been laid down, making it mostly impassable by road bike. So instead of a grueling 3.75-mile race with 2 main climbs, it was instead a speedy 2.5-mile relatively flat course with a single climb out of the start. I was racing my cross bike, since my racing bike was stolen at Yale, and I'd retrofitted a 50-tooth big ring on the front (instead of the stock 46) to help with flats and descents. Knowing the course was to be much flatter than advertised (and the section after the first climb is a great place to make up time), and that my shifting between chainrings wasn't particularly great, I started in the big ring.
The initial climb was doable, but difficult in the big ring. At the top, I needed to briefly get out of the saddle to keep the pedals turning over at a reasonable rate, and that took a little bit out of me. As I accelerated through the first flat section into a few turns, I tried to catch my breath before what I knew would be a tiring climb up a rise following the descent out of campus. My cornering skills are not particularly good the first time that I take a corner; it takes me a few tries before I learn how to rail one. So I probably didn't gain any time in the corners at the top of the climb as I rode past the main green. But I held the pace as high as I dared, not being quite sure how long the course should take me. Down the hill, I regained my rhythm, but as soon as the road turned uphill, a C rider from Army passed me up (I was the last B rider to go off). After this, the course was pretty much a flat shot to the finish, and so I dug in to finish with a time of 6:09. It was second-to-last in the Men's B field, but not overly concerned with the result. I've never been a good time trialist, and besides, a highly technical crit (my speciality) was coming later that day...
Those who have raced at Dartmouth before might remember the course... the traditional Dartmouth crit is a highly-technical 6-corner course. Turn 4 is a narrow downhill corner with a grate blocking all the best lines, coming immediately after a right-hander. It's a scary corner too, because if you overcook it, there's a steep grassy downhill and a lake not far from that. Two years ago, all fields went through that corner, which provided a busy day for the Dartmouth EMS personnel and a painful day for riders. The plan this year was to mitigate this by sending only the A and B fields around the "turn of death" and having all other fields ride last year's relatively more tame 4-corner version. Unfortunately, the threat of rain caused the organizers to nix this plan and instead have all the fields ride the 4-corner course. Oh well...
The Men's B crit started off tamely. Garrett Lynch won the race to the race and led the field around the course for a lap at a nice easy tempo. I started in less perfect position, but moved up and joined him on the first power climb. The pleasant pace didn't last for long, though. The first prime lap shot the pace way up and formed an initial breakaway. I'd been working hard to stay in the top 5 wheels, and was ideally positioned to ride with about 5 or 6 riders who had gotten a gap. But with probably 20 laps to go, no one else wanted to work, and we were quickly caught back by the group.
Once the catch was made, no one else wanted to do any work on the front. So I set a decent tempo safely inside my threshold power and waited for someone to come around and take up the pacemaking. Since no one obliged, I led the pack through turns 1 and 2. I didn't accelerate, but by the time I had gone through turn 2, I had a 50 meter gap on the field. I'm guessing that the person sitting on my wheel braked through the turns (this was not necessary; both could be taken at over 30mph) and never accelerated back up to my wheel. Regardless of how it happened, I had no interest in breaking away from the field on my own, with many laps left to go. I let them catch me on the next power climb.
But when then field caught up to me again, the riders at the front had changed quite a bit. It was no longer the folks I'd been talking to before; a number of the stronger riders I was watching had suddenly appeared at the front of the group. The strong junior rider from KMS, McGill #205, and a few others I'd been keeping my eye on had suddenly appeared, and stayed at the front for the remainder of the race. The pace also got correspondingly higher, and by the end I was dividing my efforts between maintaining position and simply hanging on.
With 2 laps to go, I began working on putting myself into the top 5 wheels. The pace was extremely high, and I was having enough trouble just keeping my position, but managed to get inside the top 10. On the last lap, an attack went off up the final power climb, but was quickly neutralized. I was caught slightly off-guard, and it took me an extra second to get back into position. Here the pack was about 5 wide going into the final corner. I had some extra momentum going, but sat up in probably around 6th or 7th wheel because I had no intention of leading out the sprint. Just then, and Army rider attacked up the other side of the road, catching the whole field unawares, and plunging us into one last desperate chase.
Riding a cross bike certainly didn't help, but I found myself 7th or 8th wheel going into the last turn, behind a McGill rider. I wasn't carrying as much speed as I could have through the final turn, mostly as a function of the confusion in the chase. This turned out to be both highly fortunate and somewhat unfortunate. The good part was that when the McGill rider ahead of me went down (I think he clipped his pedal), I was able to steer wide and avoid crashing myself. The bad news was that the lack of speed cost me a few places in the sprint. After avoiding the crash, I got up and pounded as hard as I could, catching up to the Princeton rider ahead of me to finish 7th on the day, two places shy of USAC upgrade points.
After the Men's A race, we participated in the jorts competition, winning the Ivy League title but being outclassed by UNH and UVM.
On Sunday, the weather started out quite nice, and the roads began to dry up from the night's rain showers. The Men's C and D fields went out first in the first wave of the morning, and came back exhausted. The climb was no joke, Garrett D. and Jesse explained...
The Men's B race, sandwiched between the Men's A and Women's A/B races, started about 30 minutes late, since the organizers needed to clear the course before we headed out. We toodled along the flat section of the course, taking it nice and easy, knowing that 6 laps of that ferocious climb would sort the field out soon enough. But when we got to the climb, lo and behold, our field was neutralized, because the Women's A/B race behind us had galloped across the 5-minute gap and had caught us at the foot of the climb.
As poetically just as it may seem, this was an incredibly stupid decision on the part of the officials, since the racers in both fields knew that once the Men's B field hit the climb, it would soon outpace the Women's A/B field. We had hoped that they might warn us that we were being caught, and tell us to go faster, but it seems that USAC officials are not particularly well-trained for scenarios involving field neutralization. And sure enough, as soon as the women's field passed us, and we were un-neutralized, we passed them right back. The only trouble was, the women's field had broken up in the meantime, making the whole climb a rather dangerous adventure...
We were almost at the top by the time we passed the women's field; the effect of this was the give the weaker climbers in the field (read: me) a 1-lap reprieve. After a blissful but all-too-quick descent, we were back in the flats for another round of wait-for-the-climb. But this time when the leaders of the women's field came up (I don't know why they wanted to hammer in the flats, but they did) we upped the pace to avoid the officials causing another catastrophe. As an unfortunate side-effect, this meant that the field kept a high pace on the initial slopes of the climb. I tried to stick around, but was summarily dropped -- this climb was way too steep for me.
The rest of the race was essentially an exercise in mental fortitude. Every muscle fiber told me to quit, but I refused to get a "DNF" next to my name. I rode with a group of three or four riders for two laps (until my chain got stuck and I needed to dismount to fix it), and finally with another rider from UVM for the last two laps. The remaining four climbs were successively more painful, and despite an expert feed from Jesse on my fourth lap, I nearly ran out of food and water regardless.
By the time I was on the final climb, all that was going through my head was the thought of getting back to the vans. I no longer cared about the race result, and my "threshold" pace had become a "barely hanging on" pace. After the final descent, UVM turned off the loop onto the start/finish chute and waited for the finish to come our way. I didn't remember the terrain leading up to the line particularly well, except that we had one more (short) climb to go. I didn't realize, however, that there was a descent also, and so I made no attempt to drop UVM on the climb (this was very obviously his weakness). As a result, UVM positioned himself on my wheel and came around me at the line. I finished second-to-last among riders who actually finished the race, although a not insignificant fraction (almost 10 of 45 starters) abandoned. But despite finishing second-to-last, 30 minutes behind the leader, I was still satisfied; those were without a doubt the hardest 49 miles that I've ever ridden, both physically and pschyologically. The hill was steep all the way up with little reprieve, and the flats were into a strong headwind that sapped speed and strength. The descent was an amazing break, and I probably hit 50mph every time, but it typically took no longer than 5 minutes top to bottom.
But sadly the race wasn't over once I crossed the finish line, because it started to drizzle. I booked it (as best I could at that point) the 2-3 miles back to the parking lot, where I all but dropped my bike on Garrett D. and Jesse before disappearing into the minivan, where I stared at nothing in particular for a while before getting changed. The weekend in one work: Ouch!