A Lesson in Pack Riding (Race 6)

On Saturday we (coach Pete, Penn's Brian, Tiffany, me, and QCW's George, Linda, and Don) went to race in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. For the Penn people, this was sort of a training race. There won't be any college races close enough to go to until the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference at the end of this month, and we wanted to stay in practice, so we joined with some QCW folks and did USCF races.

The course at Prospect Park is a three mile loop, closed to cars, and quite flat -- there's a shallow rise at one point, and on the other side of the loop a shallow descent, but that's about it. All the curves are gentle, and it's very smoothly paved. It's about the gentlest course you can imagine. As in Central Park, there's a joggers lane on the left that you are required to stay out of, and the races all line up at the same time and start one after the other, so they're all on the course at the same time. George did the Cat 2 race, Brian the Cat 4, Don the Cat 5, and Tiff, Linda, and I did the Women's/ Master's (Master's is people 35 and over) race. The Women's/Master's and Cat 4 races were both 10 laps of the loop.

My participation in the race was just basically trying to hold with the pack. I stayed with the women's race started for just over 3 laps. Somewhere in the 3rd lap, Pete (who was riding with us) told me that Linda had dropped off the main pack, and Tiff was up in front. The 4th time up the little hill, I wasn't able to keep up with the front of the pack, and I dropped off. Here's Pete's explanation of this -- just before the hill there's a flat section where you ride into headwinds. In this section I got nervous and wasn't concentrating on pedaling efficiently, so I wasted alot of energy here, so when the hill came up, I was too tired to keep up. Hmmmm. Pete tried his best to get me back onto the pack, letting me draft him, etc, but it wasn't working. So he told me that this is what I would do -- since the main reason we were doing this is to train, I'd wait until the Cat 4 race caught us, and I'd join in that. I thought: I'm going to have a hell of a time catching the 4s, since they'll be going faster than the race I'd gotten dropped from, but, well, I'll give it a try.

We did close to a lap on our own, pedaling relaxedly. As the Cat 4s approached, we got to the left side of the course, next to the joggers lane. They came by on the hill. The first few people came and then the pack started to pass. As they went by, they weren't going much faster than I was, so it was an easy matter to speed up a tiny bit and slip into the pack. I'd done it!

I saw Brian ahead of me. It gave me a little thrill to be riding in the same race he was... Oddly enough it seemed easier to keep up with the Cat 4s than the Women's/Master's race. It seemed that they were going at a more steady pace, which suited me better -- I'm still bad at putting out the extra energy to stay with a race when it picks up in pace, and then conserving energy when it eases off. I stayed with them for about 3 laps. Then the Cat 1-2-3 race caught us. It took a very long time for them to pass. I was in with a big bunch of people, and I had no idea who was with what race. Then I heard a loud engine and wondered what it was. It got gradually closer, and I found it was a motorcycle on the course. Eventually, from the talk around me, I figured out that they were holding back the Cat 4s to let the other race pass. When they had gone, the motorcycle got out of the way, and the Cat 4 race was off.

And here began my problem. Because of the holdup, I'd gotten to the front of the Cat 4 race, and I was well rested. Soon after we got going again, a few of the people at the front, maybe about 10 of them, got separated from the pack. I put out the energy and stayed with them. I did this for about half a lap. Then, in the section with the headwinds, having gotten worn out, I began to drop off. I dropped off the break and people in the pack passed me, and I didn't have the energy to catch a wheel and try to stay with them. Up the hill they got in front of me. During and after the hill, Pete did his best to try to get me back to the pack. He wanted me to stay with them to get more practice in real racing, staying with the pack, and riding on my own wasn't going to help me. He pushed me. I objected at first, but he said "You're out of the race, effectively, you're not going to place no matter what happens, so it's OK". Another fellow joined in a helped. But it wasn't enough. I was worn out. The Cat 4s went away.

Pete said "OK, you've gotten enough of a workout. You can stop." I wondered -- what should I do? Should I keep going on my own, and get with another race when it came by? Pete said "You can if you want, but I'm stopping, I've got a flat". And, I realized later, there wasn't much left that I could do. I'd done 8 laps, the Cat 4 race I'd dropped off of had done 9 laps. There wasn't much of the race left to go.

I pulled off, put on the light jacket that I'd folded up and put into my jersey pocket. I found Don, whose race was shorter, and found he'd taken 2nd! I watched the Women's/Master's Race go by. I watched the end of the Cat 4 race: one guy went over the finish line alone, then after a bit I saw Brian alone, his hands in the air -- I thought he'd taken second, but it turns out that there was one guy between him and the winner, so it was third. Then I saw Linda go by with a couple other women. I suddenly felt bad about dropping out of the race. Linda had stuck with it, and I said "I could have done that..." Don and Pete said "Well, go join them". I didn't know if I could catch them, but I figured I'd give it a shot. I whipped off my jacket, gave it to Don, and headed out. I caught Linda and her group after the hill. I said hello, rode with them a bit. Then I did something very stupid. I'd been resting awhile I was pretty fresh, so I had lots of spare energy. I took off. They, who had been riding all this time, ignored me, and rightfully so.

I quickly got tired of being alone and waited for them. When they caught me, Linda said "I don't want to put you down, but I don't think you should have rejoined the race. Us three have been working together all this time, and it's not right for you to barge in here on the last lap." Well, she was right. I said "OK, I'll just ride next to you", and I did.

They did a little sprint at the end, which Linda won. I rolled in, and later apologized to Linda for acting like an idiot. Talking to Tiff, she thought she'd taken something like 5th in her race, but later, when the results came out, it turned out that she'd just missed placing. George did very well in his race. He placed in the top five, but I don't remember his exact place. While we were waiting for results, Tiff and I got to talking with some of the other women, and I found that these were veteran racers, they'd been at it for many years. They were quite enthusiastic about the sport, and I found it inspiring.

In retrospect: I learned several things in this race -- fear is still my main obstacle in a race, preventing me from riding efficiently and conserving energy in the slow parts of a race. And, if I'm struggling to just keep up, I should make an effort not to go with breaks, even if they happen in the group of people that I'm riding with. Finally, a bit of biking etiquette -- one doesn't barge in on a group of people who have been working together, especially after having dropped out of a race. On the other hand, this wasn't a total loss -- when you add up the time I was with the Master's/Women's race and the Cat 4 race, I kept with the front groups for 6 laps in total, about 18 miles, which is better than I've ever done before, when I've gotten dropped by about 3 miles.