For those of you who don't know what a criterium (aka crit) is, it is a cycling race that is done on a short 1-2 mile loop (usually), that is done over and over again until what usually results in a sprint to the finish line. In my opinion, crit racing is all about maximum speed and technical bike handling skills including keeping a line and riding, not coasting, through turns.
I was pretty nervous going into this race for several reasons, but mainly because women's races have a reputation for being vicious and plagued by poor riding, leading to some serious crashes.
On the way down to the race, I called a friend to ask for advice on racing strategies. We came to the conclusion to stay out of the front but avoiding getting blocked so going to the front if necessary. When I got there, I saw lots of familiar faces, particularly Stark Velo and Snakebite guys I have come to know from the Westlake Tuesday night crits. I asked pretty much everyone I knew who had already done their race for advice and was given some great suggestions about the best lines and where to take a pull if needed, but where to tuck in if possible.
The course was a figure 8 with 8 turns and a short power climb in the middle. The loop was 0.8 of a mile long. The CAT4 women had a 30 minute race, so I predicted about 12-14 laps.
As I was pre-riding the loop about 15 minutes before my race, the official on the motorcycle comes up to me and says, "you know that you are going to get disqualified wearing that jersey, don't you?" What????? He continues, "you can't wear a sleeveless jersey." What??? "Can I wear a t-shirt?" "yes, you can wear a t-shirt." (A side note: why MUST I always learn these things the hard way?)
I started panicking, yelling to anyone I saw, asking if they had a t-shirt or a spare jersey. Well, as luck would have it, this very nice guy who had already held my bike for me while going to the bathroom said he had a spare jersey and offered it up. This guy's name was Andy, and he rode CAT12PRO for Ohio National Engineering. He and his teammates helped pin the jersey down so it wouldn't be flapping in the wind. I thanked them probably more times than I breathed in that five minutes, made my way to the start line after promising not to embarrass their jersey.
I got to the start line with my heart properly pumping from the adrenaline rush I had just received. Unlike the men's races, all the women raced at the same time. So, at one time there were two races: the CAT123 (the VERY strong women) and the CAT4 (the more newbie women). The CAT123 were given a 1 minute lead and had a 35-40 min race, while the CAT4 had a 30 minute race. I saw the CAT123 take off, and I talked to a friend about a potential race strategy, mainly where I thought the best place to attack would be and about a good time to do so.
As the race started, a woman I had ridden with before went to the front, and I knew she was weak, but I also knew that I couldn't drop her the last time I rode with her. It should be said that I had seen two of the other four women in the race ride before, but I had no clue of the skill level of the other two. The one seemed pretty serious, warming up on a trainer before the race. But, when we got to the second turn, and they continued to brake and coast through turns, and I quickly realized that this race was going to be more like a 29 minute ride with a sprint finish so I opted to take off and see if anyone else was willing to push the pace. In my mind, this race was about training, working on my crit skills, not necessarily on race strategy. I wanted a hard 30 minute workout.
When I took off, I didn't look back, just went, and by the time I did look back, I had a good 20 yards on the field... with about 28 minutes left in the race. I should say I did the Twin Sizzler road race back in 2007 and made a similar jump that lasted for all of about 2 minutes. I fully expected this break not to last and to be caught to play for the sprint at the end. There were four of them and one of me, they should have been able to work together to bridge the gap.
Apparently, that's not what happened. I kept trying to ride the lines and and race through the turns, figuring that would be the best place to gain some time. There was a guy right at the top of the hill who kept cheering for me really loudly, and that helped me every time I passed. I was a little worried that the officials thought I was a CAT123 rather than a CAT4 as I was never hearing anything about laps or how the race was going, but sure enough, with about 12 minutes left, they posted a 5 more lap warning, and I was escorted by the motorcycle (yes, same guy who warned me of my impending DQ) indicating that I was in the lead.
I started counting down the number of times I was going to have to face that stupid power climb, but made sure not to let up on the gas. I kept looking back for signs of a chase, but I never saw one develop. I did get passed by the three leading women in the CAT123, but not the entire field, which made me feel pretty good.
I ended up winning the CAT4 by maybe 50-100 yards and kept the pace up the entire time, averaging over 20 mph, which I think is pretty good considering I was on my own, with 8 turns and 1 power climb.
When I went back to give the Ohio National Engineering guys their jersey back, they were super pumped that I won in their jersey. I found it even more ironic that their team bike was the Cannondale Supersix (a step down from my Evo). Seriously, these guys were super cool and I hope to run into the at races in the future.
This race was a lot of fun, I am enjoying experiencing something new and challenging myself to develop different cycling skills. I know that there are women who, had they known up, would have completely changed the dynamics of this race. I look forward to seeing how I stack up when more is on the line.