Monday, June 16, 2008

Carnage, mea culpa, and the vicissitudes of road riding

This weekend was a busy one on the local pavement. Friday was the Tour of Eagle criterium in downtown Eagle, and Saturday was the Bob LeBow century, my first road century for the year.

We've made watching the Tour of Eagle a family affair for as long as we've lived here, but this year we hired a sitter so my wife and I could enjoy the race unencumbered. This year was the first time that I have seriously considered racing, but my take on riding crits is that if they were available on Amazon, they'd be followed with "Customers who enjoy cat 4/5 crit racing also liked mixed martial arts and BASE jumping."

In other words, the idea of participating in the local race is nice, but my fear of hitting pavement and getting hurt far surpasses my desire to measure my speed and cornering ability against that of other 40 hour/week, not-as-lean-as-they-should-be, 30&40-somethings. It doesn't help that the tour of Eagle is on a really short circuit with tight corners bordered by benches, trees, and metal traffic barricades. No straw bails or anything else is put down to prevent riders from becoming cyclist kabob on sharp objects. I've never seen a cat 4/5 crit that didn't involve at least one crash, and this course just makes it that much worse. For the sadists in the audience, Friday night's race did not disappoint. (In case you're wondering, this is not a race report in the sense of providing play-by-play detail or a full results grid--I just watch to see if the people I know win or podium, which they didn't, and in hopes that the people who inevitably go down will be OK.)

We arrived a bit late, about midway through the women's race. We didn't see the incident, but when we got there, one of the riders was limping around with road rash all up one side and a piece of bloody gauze where the skin on her hip used to be.

Next were the cat 4/5 men. As I watched the competitors line up, I of course sized up the competition, wondering how I would have measured up. Surprisingly, there was only one crash, and it was relatively mild. The group split a few laps in, and I entertained thoughts that I could have held onto the lead group. Didn't matter, though, because any delusions of crit racing that I may have entertained were soon to evaporate.

The masters 35+ and Cat 3 race was next. The cat 3's are experienced enough and the masters old enough that they try to avoid hurting one another during the race. We saw one relatively mild crash (we usually observe from the tightest corner where most of the crashes occur--I don't know what that says about me), but for the most part it was a civilized affair. Eric looked strong throughout but flatted on the second to last lap. Apparently there was one crash in the final turn before the bunch sprint for second place, but according to Eric, the guy had it coming, as he had been riding dangerously throughout. The bunch sprint was for second place because Brandon Archibald had lapped the main field for the win, and then casually mentioned when interviewed afterwards that he was riding the masters race as a warmup for his cat 1/2 race.

Speaking of the cat 1/2 race, I usually expect this to go alright, again, because these are experienced racers who don't want to hurt each other. The night got off to an auspicious start, though, because several riders went down in the very first turn. I thought this would get it out of their systems, but it turned out to just be foreshadowing. These guys were really flying, and it was late enough that the lights were on in the corners, and the straightaways were pretty dark. About a third of the way in, again in turn one, there was a big crash. I mean guys and bikes piled on top of each other big. It took a while to get sorted out, but everyone got up and seemed to be OK. The only real damage I noticed was that one of the guys was riding Zipp 808's and had folded the front one in half. That will only cost him about $1000 to replace. Ouch.

You'd think that would have been enough, but with just a couple laps to go and one of the Bob's riders well off the front, several more riders went down in turn one. This time it was really serious, though. The riders went through one more lap, with the officials warning that there was someone down in the corner and to take it slow. The officials should have stopped the race altogether, but they didn't, so the riders stopped it for them. Next time through, they all just sat up and quit riding.

As a result of the crash, Erik Slack of the Bob's team was on the pavement unconscious. I didn't see it happen, as we had moved over to the start/finish line to watch the sprint, but Ryan said that Erik went down, and then another rider hit him and ran over the back of his neck before being flipped up into a tree. It was without question the worst crash of any race I have attended. Erik was strapped to a backboard and taken to the hospital by ambulance, where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion (thanks to an anonymous reader for the update on Erik's condition).

After getting home late Friday night and going to bed even later (had to go through the pre-night ritual of organizing all my stuff, checking my bike, and laying out my clothing for the next day), I was up early Saturday morning to ride in the Bob LeBow century. Bob LeBow is one of the largest charity rides in the area, because it offers multiple distances (from 5 to 100 miles), excellent support, and is unbelievably cheap considering you get a nice schwag bag and lunch at the end.

Ladd had pulled together a good-sized group to ride the century, with several of the Team Reel Theatre riders, a couple of guys from Broken Spoke, and a few more orphans. Our goal was to start at the front and push the pace in order to get a sub-five hour finish. We had the right machine to reach this goal, but unfortunately, the cogs would get jammed, literally and figuratively, before we could make it happen.

The literal jamming occurred right at the beginning, while the police were escorting us from the start area out onto the course. We had to wind through quite a few different turns, so the police escort was nice because it stopped traffic and gave us something to follow. Unfortunately, the police didn't realize that escorted cyclists are a lot like lemmings, and we'll follow the motorcycle wherever it goes. So when the cops turned left onto a street in order to block traffic, we all turned left as well. We were supposed to have turned right. They yelled to us that we were all going the wrong way, so everyone instinctively grabbed their brakes. As everyone in front of me was slowing down, I thought I'd pull to the side and get out of the way. Unfortunately, Ladd was behind and to the left of me, so when I pulled left, I bumped his front wheel. He stuck out a foot and tried to save it, but someone hit him from behind, and it was all over at that point. It was a slow-speed fall, so Ladd was unhurt, but the guy behind him had a chainring puncture his forearm. The guy with the chainring puncture was on a tri bike with aero bars. I have no idea whether he was in the aero bars or not when the crash occurred, but why on earth are aero bars allowed in a large group ride?

We helped Ladd up and tried to get his bike situated. But it wasn't going to happen. I'm not sure if it was the hanger or the derailleur itself that bent, but his rear mech was jamming the chain into his cassette, and his rear wheel wouldn't turn. He was out of the ride. I felt awful--it was my stupid move turning without looking behind me that ultimately led to the crash. I thought about giving him my bike, but I ride a 51, and I don't think that would have been a good solution for him for a 100 mile charity ride.

So minus Ladd, the rest of us carried on, but we now had a huge gap to the main field. Fortunately, we also had a big motor, as Eric was not too gassed from the previous night's crit to give us a pull back onto the main field. Eric took the front, followed by Matt, Nate, then me. Troy and Todd were right behind me. Clint, Ryan, Andy, and Tom had already gone on ahead. We soon passed Clint and Ryan, and they didn't even try to latch on. When we were about 20 seconds behind the main field, Todd and Troy started flagging. I couldn't blame them. I was a passenger on the train, and I was still at threshold, drooling on my stem trying to keep up.

I let Eric, Matt, and Nate go, and waited for Todd and Troy. Once they were back on, we pushed along at a slightly slower pace. We were all suffering, but I knew if we could push hard for another 2-3 minutes, we could get back in the large pack and have a chance to take a break.

Once we bridged, we were able to enjoy the relative comfort and ease of riding in a large group. Until the course turned, and we headed west. At the start, the wind was mild, but as the day warmed, the wind picked up, so we had a stiff headwind figuratively jamming our cogs for a good 50 miles or so. We tried to get a good paceline organized, but too many people didn't know how to rotate or weren't able to pull, so that soon disintegrated into what seemed like Matt alternating every other pull with whomever else happened to be on the front, often some of the larger Lost River guys who would carry a bit of momentum on the down side of a roller.

About 20 miles in, we came to a fairly short but very steep (12%+) descent that took us down to the shores of the Snake River. Having made that descent before, I knew better than to be in a large group on the way down. I made a move to get on the front of the peleton, and the rest of our group followed. As we flew down that hill, I was very glad not to have a bunch of other riders to share my line with. Without even thinking about it, I hit a new personal best for speed on a bicycle--52 mph. At the bottom of the hill is a 150 degree, off-camber turn, so we had to shut it down fast and hold on tight to make that corner. The stench of burning brakes was strong at the bottom of the hill.

The hill also served to split up the group, and we had a much smaller bunch from that point on. Those of us that remained continued to fight with the wind as we followed the Snake River through Marsing and Homedale. At the aid station in Marsing, I picked up a couple of hammer gels, one apple cinnamon flavor, one banana. The apple cinnamon was really good, but I don't know what I was thinking picking up the banana. I love bananas, including the wonderful variations on the theme such as banana bread and banana splits. So why is it that bananas can taste so good, yet nothing banana-flavored is even remotely palatable? I gagged the thing down because I knew I would bonk if I didn't, but I'll never touch that flavor again.

We continued up the river towards Nyssa, OR, but fortunately we were on the Oregon side of the river and got to enjoy the smooth asphalt roads. Last year, the wind was coming the other direction, and we made excellent time through this stretch with wind at our backs and nice smooth tarmac under our wheels. If I could have a choice, though, I'd take this year's conditions with the headwind early, so we could finish with a tailwind. That being said, miles 50-60 really hurt for some reason, and seemed to go by really slowly.

Mile 60 comes just before Nyssa, and with it an aid station and a change of direction. Changing directions meant favorable wind, and we took advantage of it. We made good time the rest of the way in, with the only problems coming from the Canyon County cobbles, the sharp, marble-sized gravel they use for the chip seal road surfaces. By mile 80 our legs were sore from fighting the wind early, and our backsides were sore from being bounced around on the chip seal. It was shortly after this time that we noticed that Nate and Todd had fallen off. But we didn't slow down--we figured they could make it in on their own.

The final aid station comes at mile 90. At that point, we could almost smell the food cooking at the finish line, so we quickly filled our bottles and headed on our way. Matt must have been really hungry, because he took off at about 27 mph. I was fighting hard but managed to catch onto the back. Troy saw us go and knew he wasn't going to make it, so we were now down to four with Eric, Matt, and one of the guys from Lost River.

As I mentioned earlier, this event draws a large crowd, as there are multiple distances. They stagger the starts so that everyone finishes about the same time for the big lunch at the end. We also all finish on the same road. The road was clogged with tandems, trailers, and mountain bikes, often riding four abreast. I'm not sure if the eastbound lane was officially closed to traffic or not, but there were several times when we had to creep into the other lane to get around the other riders.

We rolled through the finish with a total time of 5:30, and a ride time of 5:09. Not bad considering the wind and the crash slowed us down quite a bit. My wife and kids were there, but they had turned away right as I rolled through, so giving them a chance to see me cross the finish gave me one more reason to soft pedal back up the road to make sure Troy and Todd made it through OK. Troy was just a couple of minutes behind and in good shape, with Todd right behind him.

Back at the start/finish area, I went and found Ladd. He had called his wife and had her bring his cyclocross bike, and he rode the 35 mile course with her. I was glad that he was able to rescue something out of the day, considering all the effort he went to to organize the "team." He also acknowledged my role in the crash but refused to let me accept responsibility in any way, blaming the cops first and chalking it up to the inherent dangers of riding a bike. What a guy.

After a bite to eat and some time socializing with the many friends who were either riding or supporting their rider, I could feel the soreness creeping into my body. We decided to pack it up and head for home. I told my wife as we walked away that there was no way I had another 100 in me and would really need more training to be ready for Lotoja. She didn't seem to believe me. My 3 year old son fell asleep in the car on the way home, so I carried him into my bedroom, then took a shower and laid down next to him. I was very glad to be napping rather than riding 100 more.


  1. Erik Slack had a severe concussion, but other than that he is functional.

  2. Anonymous 2:20,

    Thanks for the update. Glad to hear that's the extent of it.

  3. Wow, nice write up! It was an eventful weekend though. I was pretty bummed-out with my flat in the crit but definitely can't complain too much, as a crash would be exponentially worse. :)

  4. mark, lotoja is weird. you will hit the 100 mile mark right at the end of the last and nastiest climb of the day, and you will feel like you are DUN.

    and then you'll just keep riding, grabbing groups to work with, and by the time you hit the river, you'll be enjoying yourself again, and the finish into teton village will actually be pleasant.

    trust me.

  5. Dug, I rode Lotoja last year, so this is try number two for me. Except that last year I was stick-a-fork-in-me-DUN before we even got to Salt River. Pulling into the aid station in Montpelier, I wasn't sure I could keep going. But I did. And I finished. And it was awesome. Best road ride I have ever done.

  6. Ladd's bike actually ended up quite a bit worse then we thought. I just got done checking it out with him and had to slap him around when he started to cry like a little girl.

    The hanger was bent (fixed now), but the rear derailleur is also trashed and needs replacing. The rear wheel is bent so far it is likely untruable... but the kicker, his beautiful Scott Addict frame is severally damaged on one of the carbon seat stays. I'm not sure if it's even possible to repair that or not. OUCH!

  7. Nice detail of the Bob Lebow Mark. I fell off the group at mile 90 after making the same stupid mistake I made in the 165 mile Logan/Montpelier/Logan ride last year. I failed to eat or drink the final 20 miles and it killed me. I also fell off when Todd fell off at mile 75 and I sat up to see if I could help bridge him. Luckily, I was able to bridge back on with the help from one of the Lost River guys. It was a stretch for me and as soon as we caught back on the Lost River guy was shelled out the back again. Don't know who he was, but I appreciated the help.

    The Areo Bar Guy was Craig Halls. He is a tri-guy all the way and this was his first century. After getting his arm bandaged, he time trialed for 60 miles to catch us at the 60 mile aid station. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.

    I think most tri-guys have not really ever thought about the danger their tt bars bring to large groups. I know I saw a guy riding in aero bars take a fall that caused another rider to break a clavicle in the 2006 STP. I agree that they should be forbidden on large group rides.

    Craig is a super nice guy, though, and it was nice to see him there. He finished first in the group of three (myself, Tom Witzki, and Craig) who fell off the back of the leading four out of the 90 mile rest stop. Pretty impressive for a first century.

  8. Long write-up, but good. Amazing how much can happen in a century.

    Some rides ban aero bars, others just require / ask forcefully that aerobars not be used at all or at least when in a group / paceline. I'm OK with asking riders to stay out of the aero bars when around other riders, but OK to use them when riding solo. In most centuries I've been in this works.