Saturday, August 11, 2012

Tour de Terra Cotta 2012 - Elite Race

This race was neither an O-Cup points race nor did it qualify for upgrade points yet for me this race was special. The participants in this race were drawn from among the best amateur racers in Ontario, including categories Elite 1 and 2 as well as Master 1. It was a fast race and in my previous 3 attempts at this race, I had failed to finish with the main front pack. My goal therefore was simple: to finish with the main pack.

The course for this race consisted of 12 laps of an 8.7 km loop for a total distance of 104 km. The main factors of this race that made it hard were a 50 metre climb over 700 metres which we encountered 12 times, the fast pace (avg speed > 40 kph), the longer distance (104 km) than races I have typically participated in, and the number of riders participating in the race (172 riders started the race).

Because of the number of riders in the race and the fact that the climb came less than 2 km from the start of the race, it was important to be in a good position at the start. In my three previous experiences with this race, the main selection was made either on the climb or immediately following it and though the organizers had promised a neutral roll-out to the top of the first climb, I nevertheless wanted a good starting position this time around. With this in mind, Phill and I both went to the start line 20 minutes before race start and even this early, we were half a dozen rows back from the start. Stan, on the other hand, had arrived even earlier and was parked comfortably in the first row.

Stan (front right) parked comfortably on the front of the start line.
The race started and I got clipped in fairly quickly (thanks in part to my new Speedplay pedals) and was able to make my way closer to the front such that, by the time we hit the first turn and the base of the climb,  I was very near the front of the peleton. Once we hit the steepest part of the climb, the race was on.

The first four laps were very hard but the pattern on each lap was similar and I was able to endure. On each lap, I would move up along the start-finish section towards the front of the pack.After the first turn, I would lose some ground on the climb but was still able to maintain a good overall position in the pacl. Then it was hammer like hell from the top of the hill until just before the second turn. There was usually a bit of a breather  before the second turn until the pack got strung out again in the cross wind heading towards the third turn. Heading north into the headwind, the pace of the pack would ease somewhat. Here I would typically try and move up a bit as well in order to be in a good position for the downhill leading into turn 4.

The fast pace of the front pack combined with the number of riders who were able to stay with that pack made for some harrowing moments as everyone tried to maintain a favourable position near the front of the pack. At one point, my front wheel rubbed against the rear wheel of a Wheels of Bloor rider after he had to brake to avoid crashing into someone who had cut across his lane. Several expletives were bellowed out but everyone stayed rubber side down on this occasion at least. But at the top of the climb the second time around, I noticed the ambulance parked on the right shoulder and inferred that that someone else had not been so lucky.

With the fast pace of the main pack and the shear number of riders, maintaining one's place in the pack was scary at times.
For the first several laps, I hung on and counted down the laps but after awhile, I wasn't counting laps to go so much as "climbs" to go. It was the climb on each lap that made this race tough for me. And it wasn't so much the climb itself that was tough as I was able to pace myself up the climb and still maintain a reasonably good position but, at the top of the climb, the main pack would hammer down the road with the tail wind and even the slightest of gaps could be the difference between staying with the pack and getting dropped so it was important to keep that gap closed and that was the tough part.

Pacing myself (front left) up the climb.
On lap 5, the pace settled down a little bit as the leaders slowed a bit to take on water (the bottle exchange was closed the first four laps) but it picked right back up again the following lap and that was probably my lowest point in the race. I felt like quitting. Gaps were starting to open up in front of riders ahead of me and I found myself having to dig even deeper than previously in order to stay with the pack. But though I felt like quitting, I stayed with it focusing on riders around me who I knew including Phill and Stan thinking that they must be suffering as much as I.

Stan (left) in tight in the main pack.
After lap 6, things got easier for me. In part, this was because the pace eased up somewhat but also I found myself adjusting to the rhythm of the course. The climb seemed a little easier but now the challenge was in safely passing lapped riders and I touched elbows more than once trying to squeeze by slower riders on the climb. But before I knew it, we were on the penultimate lap with just one more lap to go.

Phill (right) near the front, making the climb look easy.
On the stretch before the downhill, things began to get a little more frantic as the front pack jostled for position ahead of the final lap. It could be that a break had gotten away along this stretch as well. I was a little further back in the front pack at this point and didn't notice when the break was made but a few riders had gotten away off the front and this served to stir things up a bit. A few more loud expletives were heard,  some sudden lane changes, and the coming together of bikes and a rider was down to my left. As I went by, I glimpsed a Team Zuck rider skidding across the road. Ouch! I stayed to my right and picked up the pace to try and avoid any fall out from the crash and made it onto the final lap unscathed.

As expected, the pace quickened for the final lap and though I tried to maintain a high pace up the final climb this was a fast group and I lost a little ground. As was the pattern, I basically hung on down the stretch to corner 2 and again into the crosswind up to corner 3. Making the turn at corner 3, the pace quickened. More loud expletives and veering bikes ahead of me and I thought another crash was imminent this time including me. But again I got through unscathed. I pedaled hard up the right side, trying to improve my position ahead of the downhill knowing it would be important to be near the front going into the final corner and the start-finish stretch. I tucked in behind Stan going down the hill. I could see ahead just past the bottom of the hill, three lapped were riding three abreast along the ride hand side of the road. With 40+ riders jostling for position at 70 kph, it was inevitable that there would be a coming together as the front pack tried to squeeze by the lapped riders. There were the familiar loud expletives just ahead of me and a sudden slowing of the pack. My wheel rubbed against Stan's and I heard what I can best describe as scraping carbon  Stan veered off to my right and I assumed he crashed. I somehow managed to navigate my bike between bodies and bike parts, dropped down several gears and sprinted to catch those riders ahead of me who had also made it through. From here it was a sprint to the finish.

As it turned out, Stan was alright. He had not crashed but the crash ahead of him had cost him several positions. Myself, I had managed to cross the finish line in 40th place but 3rd in my age group. But, more importantly, I had finally finished a Tour de Terra Cotta with the main front pack, one of the more satisfying races of my short racing career.

Thrilled (right) to be on the podium of what for me was a great race.

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