[modified from an article originally written for tinyfixbikegang.com]
Gapers Block Criterium is a 4-day series held at Calumet Park, hosted by Half Acre Cycling. This year marked the 5th anniversary. The races are open to everyone, new and experienced, and are held at the beginning of the season to give newer racers a chance to get their feet wet, in these so-called “practice crits.”
I missed Monday’s races due the commemoration of my people’s exodus from Egypt (Passover), and started with the Tuesday night race. Here’s how it went. I retrieved my bike from the office where I had stashed it, and made my way down to Calumet Park (95th St) by about 5:20. I changed into my riding gear, and jumped on my bike to check out the simple rectangular course. Tuesday night it was a counter-clockwise loop, starting and finishing on the west side of the loop (Avenue G). I bundled up (it was in the upper 30s) and pedalled around the course 5-6 times, taking note of the wind, and obstacles including rough road, potholes, cracks, manhole covers that might throw me during the race. Then I stopped to register at the tent and pick up my number.
The women’s race was called for 6:50. I watched the men’s Cat 5 race, and then took a few more practice laps. I lined up, they gave out a couple of raffle prizes, then the whistle blew and off we went! My goal was to stay with the pack, which I was able to do for about 1/3 of the race. In the straights and going into corners, I would catch the riders in front of me but then would start to drift back as the group sprinted out of each corner. As I drifted to the back of the pack, it required more and more effort to hang on after each corner. About 2/3 of the way through the race my legs were feeling the effort, and I was off the back, so I decided to ride as hard and fast as I could to finish without getting lapped. I was able to do this for a while, but long story short, I did get lapped, first by the ridiculously strong Annie Byrne who had broken off the front of the pack to earn herself a HUGE GAP (amazing!), and then by the pack, but not until the last 2 corners. It happens. Not bad for a first crit ever. I had planned to watch the men’s race, but unforunately the city of Chicago decided to turn off the streetlights in Calumet Park, so the Cat 4/5 men couldn’t race.
To shake things up a bit, Half Acre reversed the direction of the course. The warmup and preparation for the race went the same or better, I was feeling good, practiced a couple of sprints. A couple of XXX teammates showed up for the women’s race too. The goal for Wednesday was the same as last night’s had been, STAY WITH THE PACK. Whistle blew, off we went. This time I directed all of my energy to staying in the middle of the pack, rather than at the back. I took every opportunity to coast or pedal easily behind someone in order to have enough power in my legs left to sprint out of every single corner. And guess what? IT WORKED. I stayed with the pack for the entire race, finishing the half hour race with an average of over 20 miles per hour. YES!
So, I tried to figure out the difference between the Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s races. Was I faster? Or just smarter in my riding? Or was everybody going slower? I asked around and according to others who had been in both Tuesday and Wednesday’s races, Wednesday’s race was appreciably faster, so I guess I rode smarter. My goal of night #3 was to repeat night #2, to make sure it wasn’t just luck. April and I were the only 2 women racing for XXX on Thursday, with the exception of the remarkable Sue Wellington, who raced with the men’s 4/5s (and did GREAT), so we were aiming make the team proud. My start was horrendous. I was in way to hard a gear, and I fumbled clipping in (and I could swear I heard someone laugh at me), but shook it off and took the same strategy as the night before, stay with the other riders. This time, though, I took every opportunity to move up within the pack. If I saw a gap in front of me, I’d put myself there. This took more confidence in my bike-handling skills than sticking to the back, but was worth it. I was never off the back of the pack, and mostly somewhere in the middle to the back end. Again, I took every opportunity to save energy by drafting. The race was quick, there were some fast accelerations,and I felt strong, with energy to spare. I kept my eyes peeled for people speeding up, listened for gear changes, and made sure to be in a good gear to sprint out of each corner. In the last couple of turns the pack spread way out, and I was towards the back (but I knew I still had a few people behind me). Since I didn’t have any riders right next to me, I took a good line throught the last corner, and sprinted as hard as I could for the finish. I saw a rider in front of me, and I was determined to pass her. And I did. AND THEN I PASSED THE RIDER IN FRONT OF HER. And then I was neck and neck with another rider; I have no idea who crossed the line first (since they only ranked the first 12 finishers and the rest of us got 13th place by default), and I don’t care. The improvement I made over the 3 days of racing was mindblowing.
THANK YOU HALF ACRE CYCLING, YOU ARE AWESOME. I CAN’T WAIT FOR LINCOLN PARK.