If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take these out of order--starting with the 3/4’s race that happened later in the day and ending with the 4/5’s from the morning. Partially because I’d like to get the “bad” out of the way first and partially because, well, it just makes for a better story arc. It’s called artistic license, see.

So the Vernon Hills Crit is actually my one year anniversary of racing. That’s right: the 2012 edition was my first ever race so I was excited to see how this year’s compared. The 3/4’s race was all-in-all a very solid race. With over 50 on the start line it was the biggest field of the day and we were lucky to start 6 xXx jerseys. The one true 90º turn unfortunately yielded a crash that took out teammate Brian Johnson about mid race but he took his free lap, got back in and finished strong. Do you know why? Because he is a hard man, that’s why! (Unfortunately he later discovered a crack in his frame so if you know of anyone selling a 56 cm hook him up.) My race was going very well and with 3 to go I was right where I wanted to be--4th wheel and feeling strong. Going into turn 4 I felt the rider behind me nudge my back tire but other than the faint smell of rubber it was all very benign. Or so I thought. After the turn the tempo picked up and I went to match it but felt myself really fighting. “Fighting” is putting it mildly. I was falling back like a rock. I looked down, saw I was putting out good power numbers and wondered what the hell was going on. As the peloton rode away I reached back and flipped my rear brake quick release and immediately pedaled freely--somehow the wheel bump had cause my brake to rub :-/. Unfortunately I was now a good 20m off the back and never really could get back on. I finished 36th and was none too pleased about it.

But enough of that...let’s talk about the 4-5 race. I was really excited to see how this race would go, not only because I now had a full year of racing under my belt but we also had a good quartet lined up: myself, Tien Nguyen, Rob Whittier and Brian Johnson (he, of the 56cm frame needing Johnsons...ahem. Help a brother out, will ya?) The race is a big open course surrounding an athletic park. There is only one really sketchy turn (#3 which narrows somewhat unexpectedly out of the exit,) a few little rises that could hurt those less-fit and plenty of room to move around if the pace wasn’t too crazy. Our pace was fast--avg 25.6mph for 45min--but not brutally so. Going into it we had the strategy to take turns launching attacks in an effort to wear down the field. However, a couple of Leadout racing guys seemed to have the same plan so we just let them do it for us and the field thinned nicely. The second part of our plan was to stay in communication and start to group up in the final laps. Easier said than done but the course lent itself to movement and you’d be surprised at how simple words and phrases--”Jim, it’s Rob at 6 o’clock,”--helped in that effort. It was also nice to have friendly wheels in the mix. Moving up or catching onto a swarm is much easier when you have a teammate willing to let you in. I experienced this from both sides--as the one yelling “get in, take that wheel on the left” and the one who another time--thankfully--heard, “Jim, let’s go! On me”

On the bell lap we entered the long start/finish straight and I was moving up on the outside, intending to slot in when I could. However, I soon noticed that all 3 of my teammates were lined up at the front. I decided right then to be a leadout man. I positioned myself in front and started ramping it up. Through turn 1 I felt good but the pavement was rising and I was going all out. Pretty soon the road would start to descend into turn 2 and I would get a bit of a break but I knew to keep hammering. Turn 2--a 90º turn but, hey, I don’t have to worry about being boxed in, I’m on the front. Go. Set up wide, exit wide. Another rise in the pavement. Red lining. Burn the last match. Fire the last round. Exhaust the last cliche. Whatever. Out of the turn I muscled my way up the rising pavement until I was cooked. I pulled to the right and let Rob, Brian, Tien and the rest of the field come by me. As soon as I had regained any lung capacity I heard myself shouting “go go go!”

A crash in turn 3 allowed me to recover slightly, get by some guys and make up some spots. I took 20th which, given the way things unfolded, I was fine with. Brian took 7th, Tien 10th and Rob 14th. Could it have been better? Sure. I question myself: did I start my leadout too early? Could I have gone a little faster? A little farther? Maybe. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Andrew Santos, who won, is a fast mother scratcher--I give him a lot of credit. Regardless, I take a huge victory in what we did accomplish: we communicated, rode strong and did what they say couldn’t be done: organize a lead out train in a 4-5 race. Several others in our race actually complimented us afterwards on our organization. Rob put it best--if we keep doing that, you will see a lot of xXx jerseys on the podium in 2014.