A few years ago, when I started playing bike racer in my spare time, my typical pre-race prep looked something like this:
Hear about a race. Register for a race. Go to a race.
Finish in the middle or quit because I'm angry I got dropped.
I'm sure somewhere along the line, the sheer amount of times I've done it have made me a little better, but one thing I know has helped has been changing my pre-race prep to something like this:
Hear about a race. Search internet for previous year's race reports. Look at the course. Decide if course is suited for me. Register regardless. Plan out attire. Pre-ride or pre-scout the course. Race.
Finish race in the middle, or the front because I felt particularly great that day. Occasionally get dropped or quit because something broke.
It was with this new and slightly improved strategy that I heard about the Lowell 50 gravel grinder from a teammate, started scouring the internet for blog posts, and read a few. One theme seemed to be somewhat recurring. Since this is a mixed mountain bike/road bike/cross bike type of race, mountain bikers have a different take on racing than us roadies do. I read more than one race report complaining of "skinsuit wearing roadies" showing up to this race, and complaints of wheel sucking and drafting. So basically, road racing.
So, I did the only prudent thing I could think of, and showed up with a perfectly clean cross bike that matched my long sleeve skinsuit perfectly. Our team's reputation had apparently preceded me, as we overheard someone say "Oh look, xxx is here too." with some modicum of either respect, annoyance, or worry in their voice, on our way to registration.
I lined up near the middle behind all sorts of racers. Mountain bikers, road bikers (with 23c tires and 53/11 cranksets), tandems here and there, you name it. As one big mass start event, I knew I'd have little trouble moving up to the front before I needed to. At the airhorn's signaled start, I decided to just get up to the front immediately, which took very little effort at all. The pavement rollout seemed to be neutral by consensus, if not officially. By the time we hit turn one I was around 6th wheel or so. Turn one was a short climb, and right about there, the group started to fracture into the different races within the race. About a mile later the first real gravel climb of the day came, and knowing that I climb like uh, facebook's post-IPO stock price, I got in the front to limit the damage. Turns out I wasn't really in deep trouble like I would be in a typical road race. The few folks on road bikes got some separation, and the guys on mountain bikes started fighting their suspensions as they stood up. We crested the climb and the terrain turned back into pavement. This was dangerous as the smooth tire crowd ahead had about three seconds at this point. At this point I was realizing that I'd brought a knife to a gun fight, and what I thought was going to be gravel was really just very, very hard packed dirt. Absolutely nothing you couldn't manage on a road bike. Note to self for next year.
I decided that letting the road bike group get away was a bad idea and decided to bridge up to them. This was probably the biggest effort I put in in the entire race, and it was no more than 15 minutes in at this point. I started to doubt my ability to hang with this group for the rest of it. Regardless, I made it up, and took a solid group of 10 or 15 guys on various bikes with me in the effort. One of the smooth-tires attacked again within seconds, and I fell back to 5th wheel or so to hope someone else would chase. They did, and we let him dangle out there for probably 5 miles or so. At this point I look back and realize there's only about 25 or so folks left in the group, so I know I'm in the group that's going to finish in front. This group is too big to fail. I'm in a good place.
Attacks happen from this point here and there, but nothing is really allowed to get away again after the first smooth-tire guy stayed off for so long. I'm really happy that the group I'm in all seem to be very good riders, even the few mountain bikes that have made it with the mostly cross-bike crowd we're in ride like they know what they're doing. I start to make talk where I can, asking ages, starting to try to decide who's a threat and who's not. The overall finish is a possibility, but I know I can't outsprint the smooth tire guys without a lot of luck (the finish is long and on pavement), so I'm aiming for age group victory at this point. As we got closer to the finish, things heated up a lot. Several times I was in my max gear of 46/11, spinning out on tailwinds and slightly downhill spots. Kudos to anyone on a mountain bike who managed to stay at this point.
We made the final transition to pavement and the all-in race finishing moves started. None but one looked very dangerous to me, but the one that did I got blocked from following. So much for the overall with 500 meters to go. I looked around and realized I could probably salvage a top 5 or so, and got on a good wheel into the finish. A guy I would later find out was my only 30+ competitor left at the finish. He seemed to blow up right before the line and I came around him with inches to spare and did a textbook bike throw to pip him at the line.
After the race, chip timing would show him having beaten me, and gotten second. I thought this was a pretty good result, and felt good about the day. The announcer mentioned something about reviewing the video, but I wasn't sure it applied to me or not. Turns out it did, and as the race is scored on wheels, not chips, I barely edged out my competitor there for first. It was a good hour or so before podium ceremonies, and 3rd place had gone home, but I knew I had one thing to do before I left:
Get a picture of a skinsuit wearing roadie on the top step of the podium.