A few of us headed down to Evansville this weekend to race the River City Criterium, a 2 hour drive but into the Central Time Zone, so we gained an hour of warm up once we arrived. It’s in a nice venue in Garvin park sandwiched between the industrial part of the city and a middle class neighborhood. The park plays host to a number of baseball fields on its perimeter, named after the New York Yankee and Evansville native Don Mattingly. He played 14 years with New York and averaged .307. That’s like you and me getting into the break at least 3 out of 10 races. He signed in 1982 (the year I graduated from UCONN) for $30,000 and when he retired in 1995 he was making $4.5 million dollars.
This area has a gritty, working class feel that resonates with me and would permeate the event. As cyclists we get to make these general distinctions about a location because we warm up in a fairly narrow band around the venue. We see all the houses, all the cars, all the potholes all the neighbors walking to and fro, some riding bikes from the Wonder Bread thrift store carrying bags on their handlebars. These people are survivors in the struggle to make ends meet, a desperate but noble pursuit. Gary and I were looking for longish straightaways without much traffic, but couldn’t find any, so we resigned ourselves to up and down a ¾ mile section of the main drag. It was going to be a hot day and the humidity was already rising as we dressed curbside.
We really didn’t need a lot of warmup, but after a long drive it’s good to just get on the bike. We do have a sort of ritual that we go through and I like to get around 10 miles in before an event which includes some windups and a couple of short sprints. When we could, between races, we would navigate to a road adjacent to the course, watch the final lap(s) of the event(s) preceding ours and then hop on the course for a few laps then off again once the other classes were lining up. We were particularly interested in the top corner and the line we would ultimately take through it. We saw a few familiar faces from the Little 500 competing in these categories. Gary and I were going to be racing in the 50+ event. On the drive we looked at the names and teams preregistered, counting the number of riders in each. This event had grouped us in with the 40 plus also, so we were spotting the younger riders a few hard-earned years of suffering. The combined field wasn’t going to be that large but a few teams were well represented and we knew that this was going to be a strategic difference from the prior event in Speedway. Texas Roadhouse, Schellers, Heroes and Clarksville had a few riders each. During our warmup on the course a Bloomington Masters racer and friend rolled up alongside me and asked what the “plan” was. I replied that the plan was to stay in front of the Roadhouse, Schellers and Clarksville show and try to get in a break before the others shut the chases down and we get lapped. I didn’t think that this was a prophetic statement, but it turned out to be eerily close to the truth.
The course was a bit tricky and added its own personality to the race. What could have been a nice, smooth sweeping left hander in the first corner ended up being designed with a chicane in it to double back on itself forcing the entry into the corner (and then into a significant headwind) to be respected. There were crashes here in earlier races, of which we took note, but only in the blasé way that racers respond to the unfortunate circumstances of others. Nonetheless, I wore hip pads of my own invention to add just a sliver of material on my hips and an iota of confidence to my cornering.
We lined up as we always do, in the sort of nonchalant way that experienced racers do, coolly sipping from our bottles like visiteurs to a sundrenched sidewalk café on the Champs-Élysées despite knowing that the first few laps could determine the final outcome of this race. I was near the back, but the field was small and I was able to see a few slots up the outside that should allow some freedom to move up quickly at the gun. On the startline I lifted up my rear wheel and shifted into a gear that I knew I could accelerate with and gently coaxed my free pedal into a neutral, waiting position. I gently twisted off my Garmin and slipped it into my jersey pocket. Visible race statistics were going to be of little use today and likely just be a distraction. Racing is about fee and finesse, doing what you need, when you need to do it. The data is great for race review, but so is a good story after the race with a couple of cold drinks.
When the gun sounded, we were off like a pack of bloodthirsty hounds I was happy with my hole shot and ended up on the outside edge of the second row, two abreast going into that first corner. This was the last time that more than one of us would get through that corner at the same time as we were single file for the next 50 minutes. I was able to establish some footing in the top ten riders early as the inevitable chess moves with the major pieces were being played, but alas, after a third attempt in the red zone attempting to go with the attacks off the front I needed just a lap or two to recover in the shadow of the field. And, if art does really does imitate life then my earlier predictions rang true. That corner was technical enough that if you were poorly positioned, gassed or just not paying attention, you would be the recipient of being relegated to a second or third group, or worse slide out. That did happen in our small group as one lap was a bit more unrestrained than the others and the rider directly on my wheel just laid it down with about 7 laps to go. So, eventually two riders broke free and then a second, small group got away and me and Gary were left in the third, just a few seconds from the chase ahead. But we were facing some serious resistance with Texas Roadhouse and Zipp controlling our little group from making any headway to the second group ahead. Even as we were lapped by the two leaders (with their added horsepower) we were unable to put a sufficient counter together to bridge. And on top of this, the dynamics were complicated as it was a combined, mixed group of 40 and 50+.
In the final analysis, we were buried where we lay by the end of the race and finished the last lap in a fury, letting the leaders duel it out as we watched on already thinking about the next event to come.