The Penn State Cycling Classic (Race # 4)

There were two races that our team went to this past weekend: Saturday, April 1st, was Bucknell (Lewisburg PA) and Sunday was Penn State (University Park Campus in State College PA). I have a friend, Sundar at Penn State, so I decided to skip the Bucknell race and spend the weekend in State College with him. Part of the team (Randy, Brian, Tiffany, Mike) would be doing both races, part of it (Amanda, John, and our coach Pete) would only be going to the Bucknell race, and some (Lauren, Dave, and me) would only be going to the Penn State race. Those who were doing the Bucknell race only would head back to Philly after that race; those doing both races would stay in a hotel in State College Saturday night, and the rest would come up Saturday afternoon and also stay in the hotel, so they wouldn't have to get up early Sunday to drive out.

When I read the description of the race, I wondered: should I race in the A race or the B race? There are only two women's categories, A and B. In collegiate cycling, you can pick your own category. I registered as a B, figuring that if I did well then I could switch to being an A. Last week's race in Bloomsburg (which was combined A and B) made me wonder if I was an A racer already -- altho' I got dropped from the front group and did the race (a crit -- 15 laps around a short loop, for 12.5 or so miles in total) pretty much on my own, I managed to go virtually the same speed as the front group and finished 45 seconds behind them, and 45 seconds over a 40 minute race is not much.

However, I was a bit worried about the distance. After the Bloomsburg race I was completely exhausted, and that race was only 12.5 miles long. The Penn State race was a road race -- it was a long loop of 13 miles, and the women's B race did 2 laps and the A race did three. Of course, somehow I knew that because it was a longer race, people wouldn't be going as fast, and I have alot of endurance anyway. I wrote to Randy, Brian, and Pete, asking for advice. Randy said that road races are usually much gentler than crits, and I should go for the A race. Pete said that, in his opinion, it would be better for me to do very well in the B race, rather than just mediocre in the A race, since it would be a big boost to my confidence. But, he said, in the end it was my decision. I usually take Pete's advice, so I figured I'd probably do the B race. But I took along stuff I would need for the A race anyway -- an extra water bottle, Gatorade powder, food I could eat on the bike (granola bars, fig bars).

I went up to State College on Friday, and Saturday evening I met the rest of the team and had dinner with them. I asked if someone had gotten our racing licenses from Pete, who had been keeping track of them. Randy said he had them. Of course, I should have asked for mine then, but I didn't think of it...

Sunday I got up late (my race wasn't supposed to start until 2pm) and had a leisurely breakfast. Then got into my bike things and we drove to the race start. Sundar wanted to take pics of me in the race, which I thought was a cool idea. I got there just as Randy and Brian's race was starting. The official announced: one minute to start time. "Where's my license?" I shouted out to Randy. "In my left coat pocket, the coat is in the car, Tiff has the keys". And then they started...

I wondered about the time. Randy's race was supposed to start at 11:15, and it had just started at 12:30. They seemed to be quite a bit behind time. I found other members of the team, and then we had to look around for Randy's car. Tiff eventually found it, and I was able to get my license and register for the race... Sundar picked up a map of the route so he could drive around and take pics.

Time dragged on, and the Men's A and B races went by every now and then. The weather was really freaky -- it would be cloudy, and then it would snow a little, despite the weather being in the 40s, and then the sun would break out and it would feel warm. It kept alternating like this the whole day. Finally, at about 3:15, the A and B races were over. Because it was so late, an official asked us women if we would mind if they cut the distance of the races, down to 2 laps for the As, 1 lap for the Bs. I have to say, most of us were happy about the change. We were fed up with waiting, annoyed with the weather, etc. We agreed. I dropped my second water bottle, just taking a small one along.

The A women started first. The official gave the usual instructions (Two laps and you're done. Watch out for cars -- this isn't a closed course.) She said "When I blow the whistle the race starts", and then she blew it! This was the least preparation I've ever had; usually they count down to let you get prepared to start. I started my timer (trying once again to time the race) and got going. No troubles with getting attached to pedals this time.

They went a decent speed, not too fast. I could keep up. I am keeping up, I told myself. I can do it! I went around corners next to people. They didn't go too fast, so it wasn't a problem. I wonder if it would have been so simple going thru' turns next to people in Bloomsburg, if I hadn't been too scared to try. At each major intersection there were marshals who stopped the traffic when the racers went by. The Penn State girls in the pack shouted out the turns.

Then we got to the big hill. Basically, this hill takes you from the valley up to a ridge. I'd ridden along the ridge Saturday, so I knew how high it was above the valley. It was high enough that I hadn't wanted to go down off it, knowing that I'd just have to come back up again. Going up this hill, I gradually dropped off. I just couldn't go fast enough to keep up with them. In fact the group that I'd been riding with broke up into two parts -- a small front group, a larger group with Tiffany in it, and I'd fallen off the back. I told myself that I'd catch back up when I got to the top. And meanwhile, I watched the gap between them and me gradually widen.

I got to the top, turned left, and then found the wind in my face and I knew it was hopeless -- no way could I catch up alone. Damn. I was not happy. Racing is riding with people, jockying for position, drafting, making breaks, knowing where your teammates are, working together. Or, if you're riding with a bunch of people who are better than you are, doing your damnedest to hold with the pack. And I couldn't do any of this. Just another solo training ride. The most I could look forward to is maybe catching someone who'd dropped off the back of one of the groups in front of me, but even if someone did, it would be unlikely that I'd catch her, since she'd already be so far ahead of me. I also thought it unlikely that any of the people who had dropped off before me would catch me -- I'd held with the front group for longer, so I was probably stronger and I have the endurance to last. I saw Sundar along the side of the road, taking pics. Great, I thought, he'll get a fine picture of me, since I'm on my own...

At the top of the hill

I looked behind me and saw someone in yellow. I'd noticed a guy on a mountain bike as I turned the corner after the hill, so I thought it was him and ignored it. Not long after however, an Army woman came up next to me. She asked me if I'd like to work together with her, or if I'd like to ride alone. Well, sure, I thought, it would be nice to ride with someone. So we worked together, taking turns pulling. Generally, when one of us felt that the person in front wasn't going fast enough, the other would pass. I noticed that the wind wasn't coming straight at us, but instead with a strong sideways component, coming from the right. I found that I stayed out of the wind better by being to her left, my front wheel about parallel to her rear wheel. My first experience with an echelon!

We went along the ridge, and then down, then along a really crappy service road that looked like it hadn't been paved in a couple of decades, full of potholes and patches. Then we started heading towards the gym buildings that mark the start/finish line. When we came to a turn we'd shout to the marshal "Which way?", and he or she would point out the direction.

We finished the first lap with me pulling. My team yelled "Go Myra" and someone, probably from her team, said "Work together!". She took over shortly after that and for some reason I remembered the course better than she did, she'd ask me the way to go and I'd shout directions. Then my turn to lead again, and we went around some turns. I headed towards the middle of the road, cut as close to the curb as I could during the turn, and then after getting around the corner straightened out again. She commented that I take corners much better than she does. I was kind of proud. Corners are something that I was miserable with when I started out race training. But now I can take them pretty fast. I've learned one thing -- never ever brake on a corner. You can brake before if you need to, but if you brake while you're turning, you'll lose it. So if you feel you're going too fast thru' a corner, just hang in there, lean as hard as you can, point your knee, concentrate, and pray you make it. It's worked well for me so far.

I noticed that I was pulling more often now, and I'd have to ease off every now and then to let the Army woman catch up with me. I began to wonder if I should head off on my own. After all, if I stayed with her too long, there was some chance she could put on a burst of speed at the end and take me in a sprint. Then I thought about the headwind along the ridge and realized it would be nice if I could sit behind her for a bit during that section. I got to the base of a hill, the start of the climbs that take you to the top of the ridge. This was at a left turn, and Sundar was there with the camera, shooting away. I shifted from my big chainring to my middle. And the chain caught between the two chainrings and jammed. Damn. The Army woman said "I'll wait for you, if you don't take too long" and went on. I swore up a storm, and I'm sure Sundar got some nice pics of me yanking my chain out from between the chainrings... I finally got the thing out and back on the middle chainring and then got going again. I was in the wrong gear, big time, but the bike cooperated by shifting down correctly, despite me putting tremendous amounts of pressure on the pedals. I also somehow managed to get my feet attached to the pedals while going up the hill.

My bike has done this before, but if I shift carefully enough, it doesn't happen. I'd been noting hills as they came up, and shifting to the middle chainring before the slope really started going. This time I was shifting hurriedly, since the hill caught me unaware. There were two marshals at the corner, one at the intersection, and one to the right, so I thought that we'd be turning right. But right went over a bridge, and I didn't remember going over a bridge... I asked "Which way" and they pointed left, up the hill. So I had already started going up the hill when I shifted, and I didn't take enough care to do it right, resulting in my chain jam.

After getting moving I pedaled hard and after not too long caught up with the Army woman. I said "This is what happens when you try to use a 7 year old touring bike for racing..."

Then came the big hill again. I stayed in my saddle going up it, not feeling energetic enought to climb it standing up. But here's the funny thing -- I got into to good rhythm going up the hill and felt the strength in my legs. When the slope eased off I picked up the speed and went around the corner pretty fast. The Army woman had dropped off. I waited for her, and we alternated pulls into the headwind. Then, when I was in front we went up a smallish hill, and I was working hard to keep a decent speed. After getting to the top I looked back and saw that she had dropped off. I eased off a bit, but then realized that this was the time to make my break -- I was just about thru' the section with the headwinds, and she wasn't with me and so couldn't draft me, so all I had to do was stay away from her and I'd make sure I finished before her. I pedaled hard and steady. Every now and then I'd look back and she was a bit further behind. I was doing it. Eventually when I looked back I couldn't see her, but I kept the speed up.

There were some short uphills on the service road before the end stretch. I took them standing. I thought "This really hurts, but it'll be over soon". Coming into the final stretch I thought, "I could just coast in and no one would pass me". But, no, got to keep up appearances. I kept going strong. I contemplating sprinting at the finish line, but why? There was no one around... At the finish line I turned off the timer. Since I'd ditched the Army girl I'd had no competition and therefore had plenty of time to think and remind myself to turn it off. The first time I've successfully timed a race! It took 1hr 24mins 10sec. My trip meter read 24.6 miles, so my average speed was 17.5 mph.

I came back to my teammates at the finish line and Dave handed me my jacket. I asked Tiff how many minutes ago she'd come in, and, being kind, she said "It doesn't matter..." I found out that Lauren had won the B race, and Tiffany had come in the second group in the A race. I asked at the control tent, and found that I'd come in 10th in a race that started out with 16 people. When I asked, only 14 in total had come in.

We headed back to the cars and split up in our respective cars and headed home. When I got back I called Pete to tell him how I did. He told me he'd been agonizing about which race to tell me to go in. I'm really between A and B, sort of an A-. I'm not able to keep up with the front pack in A races, they lose me on hills, but I'd be out of place in the B races. I wish there were more women bikers. Then I'd be able to find a group of people to ride with. My problem, Pete says, is that I'm good on average, but I can't put out the bursts of power to keep up with the pack when they're going hard, like up hills.

What to do? I could keep racing the A races, and keep attempting to stay with the front group. Or I could race in B races and try to break away, or work with Lauren (and Amanda, if she's racing) to absolutely destroy the other B racers. But I realize now, if I break off on my own in a B race, it'd be just as un-fun as riding on my own in an A race. I don't think it would be such a big thrill knowing that I'm ahead of the rest of the pack, rather than being behind it. Actually, Pete says that there's still a chance that I could do well at the A level, under certain circumstances, like if the race is on a flat course... I don't know for now.

Right now I need some rest. My left knee has been bothering me for awhile, and I want to give it a chance to heal some... Ah, I'm not as young as I used to be. Damn, and I'm not even 30 yet...

Randy's official race report:

The Penn Cycling Team continues to place in the money on the Collegiate racing circuit. This past weekend, the team traveled to Bucknell University on Saturday and Penn State, State College on Sunday.

Both races were well-attended by many schools including Princeton, Bucknell, Bloomsburg, Penn State, New Hampshire, Ithaca College, Cornell, Massachusetts, Boston College, Rutgers, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Army, Navy, and many more.

At Bucknell, the team competed in a tough criterium of a 0.7-mile loop with a 0.25-mile climb in the heart of campus. The racers were visible to the spectators at almost all points along the course making for a very exciting event.

The newly reborn Penn team made a very strong showing despite its small size.

Amanda Fine in her first NCCA (National Collegiate Cycling Association) race, competed in the Women's B event, a 20-lap, 14-miler. She maintained her position with the lead group throughout the race and finished fourth in the field sprint, an impressive showing for her first race.

In the Women's A catagory, a 30-lap, 21-mile race, Tiffany Pezzulo placed 2nd, outdistancing Susan George of Penn State, a multitime junior national champion, among other strong contenders. Tiffany continues her outstanding performances competing against the East's top collegiate women.

The Men's C catagory race featured Penn's Mike Riley and John McDonald. The race was approached conservatively by all the riders in the pack until, with 3 laps to go, Mike rolled strongly off the front in a solo break-away. John, an experienced USCF (United States Cycling Federation) racer quickly moved to the front to ensure that Mike's gap steadily widened. At the top of the small hill stood Penn's coach, Dr. Peter Durdaller, who was heard to yell to Mike with two and a half to go, "DECIDE!" Mike stayed off the front for another lap. This time Dr. Pete encouraged him yelling, "PUSH IT, PUSH IT; Squeeze out the hill; COME ON, GO,GO!!!" Meanwhile John was doing everything he could to thwart any chase attempt by the main pack. With half a lap to go, Mike had maintained a now insurmountable lead of 11 seconds. Mike crossed the finish line alone in 1st place with his hands in the air and a smile on his face. John finished in the field with the satisfaction that Penn had taken the gold.

The Men's B race was a 30-lap, 21-mile event which was race much less conservative than the C race. It contained numerous attacks and attempted break-aways. Brian Hirsch and Randy Knarr represented Penn. They responded well to the attacks, putting them in some of the breaks, and were the driving force in a couple of chases to bring back breaks. In the end though the result was a field sprint in which Randy place 8th and Brian, 20th.

The Penn State Cycling Classic is a road race on a 12.5-mile loop north and west of the campus. The course include several short climbs with a long steep one, half way around the loop.

The women's B race, a one-lap event, featured Penn's Lauren Slawe. Lauren stayed with the front group for nearly the entire race until the last short steep hill at the 11-mile mark where she suddenly jumped. She gapped the others and strongly maintained the distance all the way to the finish line. Lauren was elated that her hard work and training had paid off in only her second race!

After a hard fought battle in the two-lap women's A race, Tiffany cruised across the line in fifth place, and Myra in 10th. The break of three which formed the gap on the long climb were relentless to stay away from the others chasing. Tiffany reduced the gap to 20 seconds with a New Hampshire girl shadowing her every move. New Hampshire had another woman in the break so she did not help chase at all. Myra dropped her chain on one of the climbs which forced her back from the main packs. Towards the end of the 1st lap she teamed up with one of the Army women to help fight the wind through the downhill and flat sections. Not taking any chances in the sprint, Myra dropped her on the final hill to cross the finish line alone.

The men's D race of two laps featured Penn's Dave Copas. He gritted his teeth in the grueling 25-mile race, surviving the mile climbs in good form. The field became very strung out especially during the last lap. In only his second NCCA appearence, Dave's hard fought efforts landed him a very respectable 12th place of the 35 who started the race.

Mike was again in the Men's C race in which he attacked several times. He maintained gaps for minutes at a time. In the last of three laps, he worked his way into a three-man break away, and finished 2nd in the sprint at the line.

Randy and Brian competed in the 4-lap, 50-mile, men's B race. Penn State dominated the race by covering all breaks, attacking often, and marking certain riders. In the third lap Cornell and Penn State hooked up for a two-man break. Many attacks from the main pack were tried in order to real in the two riders, but no organized chase ever materialized. Randy tried to spark the chase more than once by pulling downhill into the wind. Twice he was dropped on inclines because of the downhill efforts, but he managed to reconnect with the main pack. Brian also tried to get numerous chases started by pulling through and off and yelling instructions so the other teams would participate. He also chased down some of the early breaks to keep Penn State somewhat under control. All efforts to organize a chase were futile. Randy sat in the pack for the last lap and waited for the field sprint. By then four were off the front and still no chase! Randy led out the field sprint and took 3rd therein and 7th overall. Brian finished in the field at 23rd.

The overall team results were not available at the time of this writing.

The Penn Cycling Team has scored at least one win in each of its first three collegiate meets. Other teams are impressed with our strong showings with such a small team. We all look forward to racing at the Penn Invitational in Trenton this Sunday and the Eastern District Championship at West Point on April 28 and 29.

Randy Knarr, Penn Cycling Team member, reporting.