We have talked a lot this year about team tactics and it is a delight to see squads throughout the categories--men and women--employing the ideas we have discussed and even practiced at LaBagh. It is also interesting to be on the other side of such maneuvers to truly appreciate how effective they can be.
The Gaslight Criterium in Grand Rapids, MI was just such an occasion. It's getting late in the season and there aren't many more opportunities to race on the road so, despite a 3 hour drive, I decided to make the trip. I will say I really have enjoyed the Masters races this year. Make no mistake: you do not want to mess with older cat 1's & 2's. Despite a few gray hairs and wrinkles those guys can still dish out the pain but there also seems to me more of an element of strategy involved. I suspect that is because the fields are collectively wise enough to know that not everyone can win in a sprint so they try different things.
The race course was more or less a 4 corner crit with a long back straight leading into an acute left hand turn, slight elevation before turn 4 and then about 250 to the finish line. The whistle went off and I had a few objectives in mind: race smart, conserve as much energy as possible whenever possible and use my "bullets" at the appropriate time to either get in a breakaway or maintain position (something that has been plaguing me recently.) Also, it was 95 degrees and sunny so drinking enough water and not blowing myself up were important too. The pace was fast from the start but I succeeded in finding good wheels and staying in the top 10 for the first few laps, lest I get caught napping and find myself off the back. Once the pace settled down I was able to pretty much move through the field at will either by powering my way to the front or taking open lines through the big, wide corners.
A few small attacks happened but the field was pretty much staying together. About 1/2 way through the 50 min race I attacked out of turn 4 and had a gap through the start/finish. But I was by myself and didn't want to push it too hard in the heat. When the field caught me the a Bissell rider counter attacked. A rider from EPS (a local team,) and another jumped on his wheel. Just like that a three man break started up the road and all I could do was try to recover quickly and hope it wouldn't stick.
Spoiler alert: it did. But how it stuck was work of art. They were going hard, yes, and one could assume that, being from the same locale, they knew each other and thus were working efficiently. But the work that team EPS did to control the race was nothing short of textbook. As soon as the break went off, they immediately sent riders to the front (they had probably 3 or 4 others in the race--a significant number for the 30 person field.) Once there, they would set a respectable tempo--neither too fast to close down the gap nor too slow so as to be obvious. Whenever we hit the corners they would coast just a little too early and start pedaling a little too late. Presumably the break was railing those same turns and gaining a precious second or two in each one. Several times I and others came around the EPS rider on the front in an effort to chase and every time one of their teammates would be on our wheel. When the lead chaser got tired EPS was back in front again, setting tempo. A few smaller groups did manage to break away from the field and, again, each time EPS was represented. With EPS generally mucking up the paceline those groups went nowhere and were eventually absorbed back into the peloton. The race was over because of the tactics of EPS. Solo riders like myself or teams without equally strong numbers were of no match. It was so brilliantly executed I would say I enjoyed watching it accept that it was ruining my race!
So the break stuck and finished probably a minute + up on us. For the field sprint I found myself in good position in the top 3 wheels until just before turn 3 on the bell lap. Then the swarm came...and came...and came. I was boxed in and wound up pretty much at the back on the pack going into turn 4. I had good legs and was able to make up several spots but could only manage a mid-pack finish from where I had begun. Still, it was a fun, fast race that solidified my belief that good teamwork and smart racing are a formidable match for even the strongest riders. I hope that we continue to practice tactics so that we are the riders in the winning move and others are writing race reports lauding our brilliance.