University Oaks Criterium cat 4/5 race – San Antonio, TX
I got up close and personal with my first cat 4/5 race on Sunday. The University Oaks Criterium series runs roughly twice a month a mere three miles from my apartment, so I snuck out of bed on Valentine’s Day morning to have a look at the local competition.
I settled on a sweeping curve of the 1km course to observe the brightly-colored kits. I wasn’t struck by the speed of the crit, as I anticipated, but by the duration. Half an hour never felt so long, and I wasn’t even racing. I have to admit that I didn’t realize how hard crit racing could be until I translated time into distance, and it dawned on me that it requires a hard effort for 20 to 40 miles. I mentally mapped my training routes, which are about that length, and my heart sunk.
But the beautiful, eerie sound of 40 cyclists and 80 wheels whooshing past also stirred my spirits. A group of MTBers watching the race with me pooh-poohed the speed and danger of a criterium, but I was enthralled. Bodies and bicycles looked so majestic spinning and gliding in tandem.
In the end, a San Antonio native and college student from Texas A&M who was riding in his first race won the bunch sprint. He finished among new Pinarellos and $2,000 wheel sets on a forgettable, aluminum Motobecane.
Saturday dawned clear and cool, a day of perfection that dragged me out of bed unusually early and set me on the bike. The route I chose was so full of cyclists it felt like an organized charity ride. Groups of men jockeyed for position with each other and triathletes passed wordlessly, training for their season openers. As early morning gave way to lunchtime, cyclists kitted out in team gear retreated inside to their coffees and the roads filled up with casual riders emerging from breakfast to enjoy the long-absent sun.
Ambitiously, I wanted to do 40 miles in hilly territory I knew nothing about. Last summer, 40 miles would have made for an easy morning, but I have been away from regular riding for many months and decided to downgrade to 35 miles and travel on roads I am vaguely familiar with.
Halfway through my ride, “vaguely familiar” morphed into “forgot completely what it was like” and “had no idea at all whatsoever.” Under-fueled and undertrained, I struggled and gasped my way up unexpected hills. The rises kept coming with few flats on which to recover. The final 10 miles had to be bypassed; I had used up my fuel, tolerance and strength for steep climbs after only 25 miles.
But how steep were those hills? I felt a modicum of personal embarrassment at how I had crawled up Kyle Seale Parkway, feeling as though I were scaling a wall of road, not cycling. I returned home and got to work on Map My Ride. I plotted the entire course, which turned up an average sustained climb of only 4%. I reddened. Was that all?
Here’s a lesson: Map My Ride only tells part of the story – a very vague and general synopsis, at that. Methodically, I plotted the course one mile at a time and a completely different route appeared before me. I had faced a few 8%-grade climbs and several 7%-grade climbs with slightly more level but continuous rises immediately following.
The new elevation map glowing on the computer screen was a form of redemption because the numerical challenge matched what my legs and lungs had felt. Instead of feeling totally defeated, I could feel a little bit proud that I had ridden those roads at all.
Two nights ago, my head down on the trainer willing a long Chemical Brothers song to end because it would mean the end of my interval, it occurred to me that I am young. Advantageously young.
Twenty-four may not be youthful in cycling years – which are kind of like dog years – but when it comes to pushing the human body, year 24 is still firmly in the reckless prime. I may have already sprouted a few silver hairs, but I am way far away from the master’s category. My muscles are fresh, my body lean and my life obligations limited.
As my trainer session wound down and I sat up, soft pedaling and feeling the hopeful flex of my thigh muscles, I realized that youthfulness allows me to go hard from the gun, get in shape fast and not worry too much about hurting myself as long as I’m smart and reasonable. So why not?
A few years ago, while I was in college, I decided to do the Thanksgiving day 5k with my dad, an uncle and a cousin. I hadn’t run in years and still pretty much hated running, but was growing increasingly competitive with my father, and he was eager to write up a training plan for me. I had less than two months to get in shape so that I could at least do the thing comfortably. The day of the race, I ran the whole course, averaging 9:30 miles. That may sound slow, but for someone who hates running (have I mentioned that I hate running?), a sub-30:00 5k that required no walking was quite the feat.
I can do this bike racing thing.
It’s going to be a struggle just to get off the ground
Last night, I purchased my first racing license. It was an inspirational moment, but perhaps one akin to building a kitchen with a sub-zero freezer, six-burner stove and Viking ovens but not knowing how to cook.
For several months, I have been aiming to make my road racing debut at the Castroville Criterium the weekend of my birthday, but there appears to be no 2010 edition of the event. Even though another crit has appeared on the same day, I must concede that I am not at all prepared to race in two weeks. Still, I will get up the morning of the 14th to be at that race on my bike, but with a camera and slightly more comfortable clothing, observing and photographing the local competition.
There are five other opportunities for me to race in my hometown through June, after which I am hopefully moving to Colorado where I will be demoted from cat 4 to below-category flatlander. Unfortunately, I might be out of town for work on March 14, thus missing the race I have re-focused on and pushing my debut back another two weeks, if not longer. Good for training and preparation, bad for motivation. As I learned in cyclocross, the taste of that first race is so addictive and sweet.
2010 Race & Ride Schedule (In San Antonio unless noted)
University Oaks Crit – Feb. 14 (spectating)
Pedal Thru the Pines, Bastrop, TX – March 6
* University Oaks Crit – March 14 (tentative racing debut)
Ronde von Manda Crit, Austin, TX – March 28
Hill Country Easter Bike Tour – April 9-11
Fiesta Wildflower Ride – April 18
University Oaks Crit – May 9 & 23
University Oaks Crit – June 20 & 27
I’m somewhat solemn as I post this calendar. I do have fear and I do have doubts. The only cyclocross race I entered and finished this winter showed just how poorly I stack up against the cat 4 women/cat 5 men, which is who I will be racing with because there are frequently too few women to populate our own field. The men blew me out of the water, beating me by more than a full lap. The women kicked my butt, too, and with only slightly less gusto.
I am content to be last and understand that I will go into my first race not knowing if I am at all prepared. My fear is crashing or blowing out way too early because I can’t hold speed in a turn or get too scared to stay up in the pack, thus getting spit out the back. My only consolation is knowing that I won’t be the first rider it happens to. I just hope I don’t eff up my sucking.
I have so far failed the test of winter. Many weeks ago, I hung up the bike as the sun began to set early and occupied my non-work hours by purging possessions and packing up the house for my move into an apartment. Last weekend, on our second day in the new place, the otherwise-handy Mr. broke a pipe installing our washing machine and flooded the place. And so my return to normal life and cycling was pushed back further. While the bikes waited, stacked in the spare bedroom, we shacked up at my parents’ place to let our apartment dry out.
That return came yesterday, on one of the crappiest days of our schizophrenic winter. The sunny, balmy weather of late had given way to rain and a breezy 35 degrees, but I was tired of unpacking boxes and living among boxes and seeing our dryer in the dining room.
Since I now live near where I grew up, I found myself wandering around the old neighborhood, along old riding routes and past the former house of my dad’s best running buddy. The guy was also an Ironman, and as a kid I liked to ride hill sprint intervals past his house, hoping he’d see me pedaling hard and tell my dad.
Going up that same hill past that same house, I thought about racing. I hate to admit it, but there’s something inspiring about doing what you love with other people watching. I don’t even mean the cheering or the support, but just that there are eyes on you. Criticizing eyes or impressed eyes, it matters not. There’s something about the watching that validates what you’re doing – the performance is not only in your memory, but the memory of others. I remember watching the Banff Bike Fest in Canada last summer and focusing on the guy in last place, who eventually got lapped. I was just so impressed that he was there, giving his all against far stronger racers.
“At least she got out there and raced,” is what I hope people think when they see me.
Circles and triangles, rubber and metal, pulleys and levers
Once in a while, I check search terms that bring people to Mellow Velo. Strangely, searches for “attractive woman cyclist,” or some variation thereof, regularly top the list. They probably click on my site by accident, and I apologize belatedly (or in advance) for the disappointment. If they were expecting Liz Hatch, well, I can only dream of having her power output numbers.
Last week, I got a hit from someone who typed in, “Is bike a simple machine?” I imagine he/she was trying to answer a high school physics homework question, but there is a philosophical depth to the query.
The bicycle is fundamentally unchanged in design, function and legend since its inception in the 1800s. The collection of geometric shapes make up a sleek, sexy tribute to physics, from the basic cooperation of simple forces to complex understandings of torque, power and aerodynamics. Wastes of space and energy are minimized on a machine that could be built in a backyard with basic metal skills and a general understanding of load bearing, or it could be purchased for upwards of $10,000 and custom-designed by companies who invest millions in bicycle research and development. It is a testament to human ingenuity and proof that – on rare occasions – people can indeed create something perfect.
The bicycle also has the ability to be a great equalizer, despite what advertising copy tells you. Most of us have encountered the rider who shows up on an old bike, wearing technologically dis-advantaged gear and who proceeds to wreck everyone with his or her tremendous strength and skill.
Those are rare, lone wolves because the bicycle is also a testament to humanity’s love of accessorizing. More than low riders, we have figured out how to colorize, personalize, customize and over-engineer accessories from saddles to stems to the straps on platform pedals. But strip it all away and the bicycle maintains the perfect functions of transport and fun. It is the simplest of machines, transferring human power into speed and distance.
No matter how the bicycle companies bow, bend and paint their frames, bikes are a series of tubes and triangles, wheels and pulleys, metal and rubber. Bicycles are and always will be bicycles.
Sound good? Of course it does.
When I graduated from college in 2008, I desperately needed a break and an adventure to go with it. I spent many nights searching for cross-country bike tours and planned on choosing one as a graduation gift. But the $2,000-$4,000 price tags felt too large to justify. Something about a fancy meal and a nice hotel to sleep in every night didn’t fit into my idea of a youthful, somewhat reckless adventure. I wanted something else, something different and a little less predictable.
I found what I was looking for via Facebook, and two months later was cycling coast to coast along a southern route. I was struggling with 70-90 mile days in the 115-degree heat of southern California in summer, but I was also feeling more alive than ever before. The fully-supported trip had only cost me $200 and raising $5,000 for the cause turned out to be simpler than I had imagined. I was sleeping on the floors of churches and gyms, eating spaghetti nearly every night and stopping every few days to do construction that would help move a family out of poverty housing.
I got what I wanted with regards to unpredictability. Understandably, there were some kinks, as it was the first trip run by The Fuller Center for Housing, a non-profit that builds and repairs (but does not give away) houses for families in need of a hand up. But the lack of a plan beyond getting from point A to point B left room for folly (and the occasional wrong turn). We waited out a Kansas thunderstorm at a convenience store sitting in the break room eating from huge tubs of ice cream. We once ordered a large pizza for every two people at Pizza Hut, then raced each other the next day to see who would get the leftovers. We frequently detoured to coffee shops to fill our water bottles with iced mochas and would change the route mid-ride to hit cafes at the time of our next rest stop. There’s nothing like a warm cappuccino on a cold day riding through Colorado.
Two years later, the trip has become an annual event and is seeking cyclists, teams and clubs who live along the 2010 route to ride a day, a weekend or a week in addition to those able to ride the entire route. The third Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure will depart Niagara Falls in June and pass through Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. (for the 4th of July), Virginia Beach, Raleigh, N.C., Spartanburg, S.C., Macon, GA, Tallahassee, FL, and Mobile, AL on the way to New Orleans. The finish will acknowledge the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and celebrate The Fuller Center’s fifth year of building simple, decent houses.
If this sounds interesting, keep reading for details and challenge your cycling club/team to join us for a weekend or a whole week. Even if it doesn’t sound interesting, please pass it on to your cycling friends. I am certainly glad that I didn’t miss my opportunity to do the trip, and you never know who might feel the same.
Dates: June 18 – August 8, 2010 | Length: 50 days
Total Distance: 2,500 miles | Daily Average: 70 miles
Route Breakdown: (Click here for a map and full schedule)
Part 1: Niagara Falls to Pittsburgh (June 18 – 27)
Part 2: Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. (June 27 – July 4 or 5)
Part 3: Washington, D.C. to Virginia Beach (July 4 or 5 – 10)
Part 4: Virginia Beach to Spartanburg, SC (July 9 or 10 – 18)
Part 5: Spartanburg, SC to Americus, GA (July 18 – 25 or 26)
Part 6: Americus, GA to Fort Walton Beach, FL (July 25 – Aug 1)
Part 7: Fort Walton Beach, FL to New Orleans (Aug 1 – August 8th)
Total Fundraising Goal: $250,000
Learn more: Go to the bike adventure Web site!
Ride for the cause; ride for the camaraderie; ride to change lives and be changed!