Microcosm of bicycle racing

I was itching for the track.

Eight months since my last lap on a velodrome, I saw there was enough prize money available at the Matrix Track Cup in Frisco, TX, to pay for airfare and car rental down there. That’s assuming I’d win some races. I quickly talked friend and coworker Steven into coming down with me.

Our lodging would be the Strathmeyer Ranch. It’s not actually a ranch, as it’s in the suburbs of Dallas, but it was big, had a pool, ample bed and refrigerator space, and was run by the kindest Host Hotel folks in the South, Mr. and Mrs. Bo and Patty Strathmeyer. It’s 500 square feet bigger than the same house would be outside of Texas. The last time I was down in Dallas, I was standing up in their daughter’s wedding, as one of the groomsmen. As if I didn’t exhaust their hospitality enough with the 2008 reception’s food, limitless booze and wondrous entertainment, I figured I would bring a friend along and we’d crash in their house. Right?

Cycling is a funny sport in that one MUST set aside any fierce independence he has in order to let people help. One cannot have success without allowing and accepting help, and in some cases, seeking it out.

We arrived in our sleek-ass GMC Acadia “mid-size” SUV. Seriously, it was roughly M1 Abrams Tank-sized, large enough to house both our bikes, our luggage, and four barrels of crude oil we dug up from the ground. Not sure what a “full-size SUV” would look like in Texas. Maybe this.

And now: how track racing weekends nearly always end up as a microcosm of the emotional rollercoaster that is Cycle Racing, and how this one specifically fit that bill for one aspiring-to-race-a-World-Cup rider.

You lose more than you win. That’s a fact. Even for “The Cannibal” Eddy Merckx, who very nearly had a 50% win rate in 1971, still lost hundreds more races than he won. The wins just far outweigh the losses. Most racers would tell you they’d prefer one win compared to five 2nd places.

We’d be doing a whole slew of races, and I had my eyes on three: the pursuit, points and scratch. These three were also the three main events of the NTC, the National Track Calendar, a weird season-long points thing that is just as much a show of how many NTC races you can travel to as it is an indicator of who the best track racers in the country are. But, those were the main reasons I was coming down, along with the desire to win the Omnium, which is a lowest-points-wins contest of the 4km pursuit, 1 km TT (or Kilo, as it’s known), Points, Scratch, Flying Lap, and Elimination. My secondary goals were to not suck in the flying lap nor the elimination, as those are my two weak points.

First thing we did was actually match sprints Friday night. I am no sprinter, but I figured I’d give it a shot. There was a small chance I’d end up in the money. And Steven can sprint for an enduro guy, so at the very least I’d have fun cheering him on. As it went, I qualified 6th with my Flying 200m time. Then you get seeded and do a three-lap race against just one other guy. I lost, went to the repechage (loser’s) round, won, lost and went to another repechage, then won, then lost, then won (not kidding here) and then finally ended up in the 5th-8th final, where four guys all sprint one another over the same 3-lap course. I finished last in that 4-dude race, got 8th. Just outside the money. It was fun to be so completely outside my element, though. I also came really close to beating this guy Eric, who ended up getting 2nd place. He beat me with a bike throw, basically. And, funniest moment of the weekend for me, we’re drawing straws for who starts in 1st position and who starts in 2nd, and he turns to me and goes, “Are you an omnium racer?” I laughed. Out of my element.

So, sprints. Yeah. Fun, but more just to get a feel for what this whole “velodrome” thing is, since it’s been so long since I’ve ridden on one.

Next day was the stuff I actually cared about. Morning session was the pursuit. This is a 4-and-a-half-minute race I’m sort of building my entire season around. I knew I’d win, but the key thing for me was my time. Unfortunately it was windy. No chance to set a PR, despite being much stronger than last year. I still set out on a schedule that would have given me a PR by several seconds. Four laps into it, I knew I had no chance. I was missing every split time by .5 second, ended up with a 4:43. That was three seconds faster than at Rock Hill last year, and the conditions at Rock Hill were much more favorable and much less windy. So all in all, I can’t be too disappointed, though I certainly was upon finishing. I beat 2nd place by about 8 seconds, and made some money. Yay! First high point of the emotional roller coaster.

Then, the low points.

First was an abysmal flying 250m lap. I got 14th place. Ouch. I know what needs working on this summer. But oh well. I was looking past it to the points race.

Points race was under the lights after another beautiful sunset. I won the first sprint, felt pretty good, and raced really well until 92 laps to go. Then, a long string of fucks-upping. This was a 160-lap (30km) race, sprints every 10 laps. Well, with 92 to go, I was either winning or in second place by 1 or 2, so I was where I needed to be, because I was also off the front and about to lap the field by myself. I looked ahead on my way toward the back of the field, and the first group I would encounter was a group of five, which to me sure looked like the biggest. I kept looking and kept counting to see what the other groups on the track were, because technically the “main group” is the largest group of riders on the velodrome. Ahead of the group of five, I saw a group of four with two guys in between these two groups. Here the gnarly subjectivity of USAC officials came into play, and I’m not entirely sure what their call was, but the group I thought was the bunch was deemed NOT to be the bunch. This wouldn’t have been a terrible call, but at 92 laps to go, I had held back from this group of 5 with the plan to take the sprint at 90 to go, scoop up those points, and then immediately go up a lap and continue to drive that group. No dice. And the waiting two laps killed my chances, as what was considered “the group” was now just a mass of strung-out riders that didn’t look like they wanted to be caught. I did get the five points, but didn’t get the lap. I had to go back to the small breakaway I was in, and we eventually went back to the main group. Big, huge, massive waste of energy. I then continued to blow it, and was clearly flustered, never getting back into any rhythm. I attempted some breakaways but nothing would stick, as at that point everyone was racing fairly negatively and also not putting anything into their moves. I probably found myself off the front with each of the six strongest dudes during subsequent moves that lasted all of 10 pedal strokes. No one wanted to work. To tell you both how negatively people were racing, and how confusing the race ultimately was for some people, a random group of four took a lap in the final 14 or so, and then the kid who won, super strong 18-year-old named Zach, told me after the race he didn’t even realize he lapped.

I’ve been mad at the end of races, but something about the combination of being in a new velodrome with none of my old teammates and sucking and letting a bad call influence how I raced the second half of the race—all of that bubbled up and I high-tailed it out of the velodrome to pout by myself. I was angry. I wanted to win, and I ended up a laughable 7th place. I sat on a curb a couple hundred feet away from the tunnel, listening to the drone of the announcer, gazing at the glow of the stadium, far enough removed from the floodlights to have minimal visual stimuli and focus solely on what went wrong, and why, and boy, Liam, you really suck. I was utilizing a great rule that former teammate John Tomlinson told us his coach at Junior Worlds would do for the juniors: you get ONE BOTTLE to be angry. Once you finish drinking the contents of that one bottle, the pouting is over, the anger is gone, and you move on to the next race. Like an anger allowance. Strange thing about track racing is that you almost never just race one time per day like you do in most other disciplines, you almost always have multiple races. So to carry anger and frustration into the next race is never a good thing.

I took my sweet-ass time with that bottle, got inside my head real good. You want to race World Cups, Liam? Really? As I swiss-cheesed all my future goals, poking holes into them left and right, I failed to realize the only break we had before the start of our Elimination race was the women’s points race that was going on, and it was only 30 laps or some such bizarrely short nonsense. So no sooner than I finished talking myself out of all my velodrome dreams and telling myself I am the worst bike racer ever, it was time to race the elimination. One bottle. Barely.

Well, I then went and won the Elimination, my least-favorite race I do in the omnium. That was good. Confidence booster. Good way to end the night, on a high after coming off such a low. Stefan Rothe took a flyer, always a weird move in the miss-and-out, and no one went with him for a while. He later said he did it just because he hates the Elimination race and didn’t want to be back in the field jostling for positions. I figured as much when I saw him take off, as I remembered him saying something similar at Nats last year. I had been riding at the front the whole race, and a couple laps after Stefan took off, I started to get swarmed, and immediately forced my way into a spot that wasn’t there, jumped off the front, and quickly bridged up to Stefan. We worked well together and held a half-lap lead on the bunch, as rider after rider kept getting pulled from the race back behind us. Eventually there were just three: me, Stefan, and 50-year-old Chris Carlson (spoiler: Carlson would win the weekend’s omnium). Carlson immediately took off, and Stefan and I were chasing at full-gas on an elimination lap. Stefan crossed the line first, then Chris and I just behind him. Our sprint was so close, our front wheels crossed at the same time. Good thing about the elimination is that the line is actually where the rear of the back wheel (the farthest-back point on you) crosses the line, so since I had more speed, I just barely pipped him. Stefan thought the race was over and that he won, which is what often happens in a miss-and-out. This, however, was an international-style Elimination, so he and I actually had two more laps before the final elimination. He had already pulled uptrack right after the sprint point, sitting up essentially. I saw this, immediately floored it, and by the time he realized we were still racing, it was too late and I had the race won. Good stuff. So much better than that points race.

The next morning we started off with a 60-lap scratch race, and I had plans to continue my winning ways and put that points race and flying lap behind me. My plan was to sit in, let moves go, and give one, good, Martyn Irvine-type attack late in the race. The man to beat was Andy Crater; he’d even let a couple of us know that he was planning to win it. In a big, fast bunch sprint finish, I’d probably pick Crater 8 times out of 10 in this field. Apparently his legs didn’t feel great, as he took off on a move about halfway through. That was great news for me, as I figured he’d work himself over enough to not factor in the finish. Well, with about five laps to go, the pace was fast, and the group I was in was strung out and probably six- or seven-strong, and I looked behind and noticed the weakest rider in the group right behind me, so I thought attacking from the front could work. I could gap him, and people would need to come around him to get to me. I jumped, all in, and boom, gap opened up very quickly. I kept on it, knowing it was just a bit over a kilometer to the finish, and I saw my gap grow and grow. They’d given up, and I won again.

Lows, highs, highs, lows. Generally these types of emotions run their course over an entire season, but here they happened in 48 hours. We then did the windiest Kilo I’ve ever done in my life, where I came close to crashing four times (every lap in turn 3), got 4th place, and leapfrogged a guy to finish 2nd in the omnium.

It was great to see Bo and Patty come out and cheer us on, especially since Steven and I won 4 of the 6 races, and also especially because they live 10 minutes from a world-class velodrome and up until last weekend had never been to it.

Great weekend all around, and good to have some track races under my belt. I really hope this Boulder Valley Velodrome gets finished soon like they say it will. Racing is slated for August, just in time to be of zero use for Nationals. Oh well.

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3 Responses to Microcosm of bicycle racing

  1. funkstitch says:

    I just realized that you are third in the men’s endurance NTC standings. Way to go! Are you racing at the Midwest Challenge this weekend?

    • If I were still living in Chicago I would go, but it’s much too expensive to get out there from Denver. So nope. I should be at Hellyer in a couple weeks, though. Good luck if you’re doing the Major Taylor race this weekend.

      • funkstitch says:

        I have friends racing there but I’m not ready for the big girl races yet, maybe next year. I’m racing on the Velocampus instead.

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