Saturday, May 2, 2009

Almost Belgian

All the rain we've had this spring is a hell of a way to run a desert. What's more, it seems if the weather's going to be foul, it happens on race day. Today's Antelope Island Road Race was no exception. When Steve and I arrived at the start area, it was raining hard. It would only rain harder as the day went on. We wondered if we were in Utah or Belgium.

Before the ride begins, there's always the internal debate of what to bring. In this case that meant every stitch of clothing I had with me, and I knew I'd still be cold. Ordinarily, I wouldn't bring a tube or tools with me for an event like this, because if you flat you're pretty much done. But it was ten miles from the finish back to the start area, a far longer distance than I wanted to walk, so I put the seat bag on just in case. I also dropped my tire pressure 5 psi in order to improve traction on the wet road.

We knew they had split the Cat 5 field because demand was so high (in this weather/economy, no less), but what we weren't prepared for was that the split put us in different start waves. You'd think the organizers would realize two guys with the same last name signed up for the same division might want to race together, but apparently not. I won't complain too much, though, because putting on a race is a pretty thankless job. The only thing worse I can think of is putting on a triathlon and having to put up with a bunch of people who don't even know how to lube their own chains.

As we started across the causeway, nobody was in the mood to race. It was neutral for the first 500 meters or so, but even after we reached the designated spot for open racing, the pace stayed about 18 mph. This is a far cry from your typical Cat 5 race, where it's short on tactics and long on keeping the hammer down for the duration.

Once on the island, it didn't change much. The road has lots of turns, and between the rain and the sand, we were all skittish about going down and didn't want to push it.

My strategy for the race, in order of importance, was:
  1. Keep rubber side down
  2. Stay on the front
  3. Go with the first break
I figured point #2 was the key to the other two.

I was right. On the first of three laps around the North end of the island, a couple of people made moves, but they didn't last. Being on the front was, however, key to picking a clean line. The laps finish with a moderate descent that ends with a tight left turn. I don't think any of us realized the degree to which the water would decrease our ability to brake, and we all went into the corner hotter than we wanted to. We were fortunate to stay upright.

On lap two, we had more confidence through the corners, but the standing water on the road was also getting deeper, up to six inches in places. One rider made a move, and he looked strong enough to make it stick if he had some help. I bridged, and eight or nine others followed me. We were soon well away from the rest of the field.

Just before the completion of each lap, there was an intersection with the road that goes to the South end of the island. After our third lap, we were to turn on that road, follow it to the end, U-turn, and then the finish would be shortly before arriving back at the intersection.

Apparently the Cat 4s were bad at counting laps. They were a lap ahead of us and should have turned down that road on our second lap. One of them failed to turn, and upon realizing his error, did the stupidest thing I have ever seen done in a race: without looking, he made a hard left to U-turn, right into our break that was bearing down on him at 30 mph. I thought it was going to get really ugly, but we were luckily all able to swerve around him without hitting each other. Fortunately there was no oncoming vehicle traffic, as we had no choice but to cross the center line.

I found out later that the lead break of Cat 4s also failed to count laps, but instead of trying to wreck the oncoming traffic, they completed the full lap and finished well behind the rest of the field. Oops.

As we descended towards the hard left at the end of the lap, we knew to keep it better under control. Which was a good thing, as there was now standing water in the apex of the turn. As I rounded the corner, I felt my front tire wash out. I counter-steered slightly and was just able to stay upright, but as I accelerated out of the corner, I could feel that my front wheel was soft.

My tire was flat--my race was done. With 20 or so miles of racing remaining, I figured I may as well fix it and finish the course. I'd at least get a workout. As I started removing my tire, one of the race volunteers ran towards me with a floor pump. I stood there glancing occasionally at my watch as he changed my tire. One minute passed, then two, then three. Then the rest of the field went by. All I would have needed was to avoid blowing up to guarantee a top-ten finish. And I thought I had the legs to do better than that. Crap.

I waited another minute, then two, then the tire was back on and I was on my way. The rock on Antelope Island is crystalline and fragmented--wonder if that piece would have embedded itself in my tire had I not been running lower pressure. Oh well.

At this point I was only racing for pride, and to stay warm, and to hopefully catch and pass a few stragglers to avoid finishing DFL. Nevertheless I gave it all I was worth. Unfortunately my solo effort and the wind and probably RAWROD cost me. With 10K to go, I was thoroughly spent. I couldn't get my heart rate over 150. Fortunately the field was so strung out that as long as I kept pedaling, nobody was going to pass me.

I finished and waited in the cold for Steve's group to arrive. He had been in the lead break when I saw him after I turned around. But on the final climb, RAWROD caught up with him, too, and he had to settle for tenth.

My friends Eric and Rob had come down from Boise and stayed with us so they could do the Cat 3 race later in the day. It was one of those days for them too. They lost the leaders on one of the climbs and just couldn't get back on. Then Eric punctured right as the support truck with his spare wheel passed him and had a forced DNF. Wish conditions and outcomes would have been better, but it was great having them visit.

After the race, of course we were starved. It seemed only fitting to order some frites at the drive through and ask for a side of mayonnaise to dip them in. If they served warm Belgian beer, I would have probably ordered some of that too. Seems as if there's not much that doesn't taste better with mayonnaise, at least at first. But after one or two I was more inclined towards the almost-Belgian Utah hybrid of fry sauce. What could have been more appropriate?

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