I'd never raced Downers before, but I watched a lot of the races last year and I'd been doing my homework all week. There seemed to be three keys to success: 1. Get to the front. 2. Stay near the front. 3. Stay near the front some more.
In an unorthodox rolling start, I got a great jump off the line and spent the first few laps in the top 10. Coming into the hill at Turn 3 I accidentally floated off the front on the third lap. Even though our plan was to be patient and neither participate in nor chase any breaks, I heard minor crashing behind me and decided to punch it, tube socks ablazin', hopefully taking advantage of any mayhem. I ended up with a Village Sport rider and we had a sizable -- perhaps viable? maybe? -- gap.
There were primes every lap, so after I let him take the first one (read as, "after I was unable to pass him on the sprint") he let me take the next. Little did I know that the pack was right on our heels. We were soon caught, but each of us with $25 in our pockets.
I spent the rest of the race fighting for position without much success. The pace was fast, fast, fast. There was a terrible, nonsensical crash with two to go that took out half the field and about half of xXx, but thankfully none of us was seriously injured.
There was a split second on the last lap where I thought I could have jumped at Turn 5 and pull an O'Keefe, but then there was an acceleration and I got swallowed. I got boxed in on the last stretch and finished in 19th.
This wasn't up to hopes and expectations, neither individually nor as a team, but I found solace in how much I wanted to throw up as I rolled into our encampment. I felt like I'd just done a TT, so hard had I been working for 25 minutes straight, and finished knowing that I'd given exactly 100 percent of what I had and was done in only by my inability to defend position.
The great thing about being 30 and being Cat 4 is that you often get two cracks at a given course. That experience can be invaluable.
Before the masters 4/5 race I noticed my cleat was loose. I borrowed a keychain from a cop and tightened it up, then weaseled my way into the front row with Bob. (We'd gotten to the staging area late and had two options: Create a new front row and get yelled at, or go to the back and start the race in 110th place. We chose option A.)
I pulled more than I wanted to, but I was able to hop on wheels when they came around me and I aggressively defended my position. Pulling was worth it if it kept me near the front, where I could pedal through corners without having to brake long enough to say the Lord's Prayer, which is what happens when you're farther back. If I was ever at the front, I would slow just a hair and be ready to pounce. The vigilance paid off. Rarely was I farther than 5 or 10 back.
I was in second wheel on a prime lap and decided to go for it since, what the heck, I was there. After going 18 months without ever winning a prime, this would be my third in two weeks. I passed the leader so easily that I was able to stand up with 5 meters to go. It turned out to be exactly 5 meters too soon. Some guy came out of nowhere and pipped me. I haven't lost $25 so carelessly since my last poker night.
Two laps later was a prime for a Ksyerium wheelset. This time the field hesitated coming into Turn 5 and I jumped. I caught everyone by surprise but I'd done it too early, and I could tell it wouldn't be enough. I stood up. Then coming out of Turn 6 I attacked again! And this time I think I had it! I knew this would kill my race, but a $900 wheelset would ease the pain nicely. But then, cruising down the stretch after Turn 7 and mentally debating whether I should use my new Ksyeriums or sell them, I unclipped! Gah! Stupid cleat! It cost me crucial strokes and I was caught by Turn 8.
They were so busy announcing primes that they never announced 3 or 2 to go. Suddenly we were on the bell lap and I was as surprised as everyone. I had been dying after the Mavic prime, but by now I was mostly recovered and had made up ground, sitting in the top 5. All I had to do was defend this position and I'd be set.
I came into the final turns in the top 10, keeping an eye on two Lot riders, one of whom has been winning Cat 4 and 5 races for years. I hung on for a while, but couldn't keep the wheel on what turned out to be the perfect leadout. Lot won. I got 4th. This wasn't my best finish of the year, but this was probably the season's hardest-fought and most competitive race, and thus the result was one of the most satisfying,
And despite again feeling the need to throw up, I think I may even have had fun. In a crit! What's happening to me?
Many thanks to all the great support -- it was great hearing the cheers from xXx coming out of Turn 1, and then from clif coming into Turn 2 -- and especially to our AthletiCo friends and Soigneur Bob. (How many amateur teams are lucky enough to have their own dedicated soigneur, complete with panini? Not many! We're in good hands indeed.)