About mid-week last week I became aware that USA Crits was throwing the Sun City criterium race in downtown El Paso this weekend. This combined with the fact that I drunk purchased a USA Cycling membership one evening a few months ago and the corresponding novice licenses to go bike racing for real, and a feeling of why not meant I found myself on Friday evening at the appointed brewery for late registration and packet pickup for my first bike race.
For those not initiated into the cult, a crit is a short, fast race on a closed course, usually city streets. This course was setup around a few blocks of downtown El Paso, with the all the bumps, cracks, curbs and manhole covers that come with an urban core. This was a shorter course at 1KM in length. Jumping into the Cat 5 race at a USA Crits event for a first race would be like doing an SCCA national tour event for your first autocross. There were pro teams here still looking for points to get in a national championship race. I knew it was for real when I got there to see stages setup and TV cameras around the course for live stream races (except for the Cat 5 races).
My former semi-pro cyclist friend/coach told me to expect a downtown Cat 5 crit to be "constant acceleration, desperate braking and sketchy riders," and he wasn't wrong. Most of the other Cat 5 racers were obviously less comfortable leaning a bike over hard into a corner at the limit of tire adhesion with the bike skittering around under you over the bumps and cracks (which I love doing!), so the field proceeded to spend the race throwing out the anchor to go needlessly slow around the corners and then sprinting off of every corner. This was unfortunate, because I have feelings about sprinting and they're not good. It isn't my strong suit. I'm way better at grinding away over distance to drop other riders versus out-powering them in a sprint.
It was a hugely fun day, and a highly successful one. I met all my goals of not crashing, avoiding the four crashes that happened in front of me and not being last. I had initial doubts about that last one, as the pace was FAST off the start. We did the first five or so laps at average speeds from 29.3 to 29.7 mph. The first half of the 25 minute race I mixed it up in the lead pack, however two successive laps with crashes directly in front of me in the slowest corner on the course requiring significant evasive action led to me losing touch with with lead pack. I was able to do the rest of the race a few corners behind the lead pack, but I couldn't close that gap. While I wasn't in contention, I was in no danger of being lapped so I got to complete the whole race without being pulled, which I consider a huge accomplishment for my first race. I ended being scored 15th out of 37 riders in the Cat 5 race.
Other stats include 4 crashes that I saw and 3 mechanicals. Two folks had shoes/cleats/pedals come apart over the first lap or two, and one guy had a rear derailleur lock up and rip off his bike while he was next to me. It sounded expensive as it broke.
It was so much fun! There were probably a hundred or two spectators around the course, and having people watching and cheering was so neat. It was enough fun that after my race and watching the Cat 4 race, I found my way to the registration tent for an El Paso club that happened to be throwing another sanctioned crit on Sunday and put my name on the Cat 5 entry list. I'm not known for half-measures...
Come Sunday I found myself up way before dawn at a large city park in El Paso, a small part of which was blocked off to form a 1 mile crit course. The spectators were mostly geese for a much more casual day. The course was the opposite of Saturday, being a park with run off, smooth pavement and much more open, faster corners. This was much more to my liking, as we all carried speed through the corners and had a race mostly devoid of sprinting until the finish. Sunday was much more relaxed being a much smaller event and me knowing a lot more about what to expect. Sunday was, again, so much fun! I rode the whole race in the lead pack and was sitting in 2nd on the last lap. A podium finish would've been possible had the chips landed a little differently, but I made a tactical error when the leader took off way too early on the back straight. I knew it was too early, but I followed him anyway and enjoyed the tow down the back straight on his rear wheel. The problem became when he inevitably faded before the second to last corner and I got pinned behind him and shuffled towards the back of the lead peloton before I could get out and around him. Still, I crossed the line mixing it up in the bunch sprint with the lead group for 8th out 17. It was a much better race for me.
I dig the way the Cinelli looks naked of light mounts and bottle cages.
Some takeaways from the weekend are that I will be doing more crits. They'll probably never be my strong suit, but they are so much fun. It turns out racing down into the first turn in a crit, making moves where there are opportunities while trying not get caught up in someone else's desperate move is every bit as much fun as the race start on a track going into turn one in my former racecar was. I found myself on the start line both days realizing that I know this, even if my past experience was sitting inside a roll cage of my racecar instead of being in my road bike. A lot the racecraft on bikes in a crit is not dissimilar to that of racecars, and the decision making under pressure is the same. That is to say I love it! Thinking back to the last two corners on Sunday, leaning hard over into a corner at 35mph with others riders inches away from me on all four sides is so much fun. I'm prepared to say crit racing is every bit as much fun as SCCA roadracing. Looking at all the bikes in my garage, curiously, bike racing isn't any cheaper than racing cars.
The other big takeaway is that I will be upgrading to a Cat 4 license when I can. On Saturday the Cat 4 race wasn't going any faster than us, but they were carrying speed through the corners instead of sprinting constantly. They also weren't crashing. Sunday was similar in that they also ran their race at virtually the same lap times as us in Cat 5, and I think another 10 or 15 minutes of softening folks legs before the final sprint would be to my advantage.
p.s., @spacekraken, on Saturday a dude on a gravel bike started the race and made me think of you. I think he was someone who had come down to check it out and then decided to get a one-day license and enter, as I had seen him casually riding around the course when I was warming up earlier. He was wearing mountain bikes shoes and shorts, and I think the bike had 45c tires on it. Think he was even wearing a t-shirt. I passed him in the first turn and never saw him again. I suspect he got pulled from the race pretty early, but it fun to see him line up.
I also learned there is boat ramp in El Paso, for the lake in this large city park. Trolling motors only, though.