Anatomy of a Criterium by RobSandy
I, like a lot of racing cyclists, race plenty of Crits. My local series are both on off-road circuits; Maindy and Llandow. Llandow is generally considered to be the bigger prize; it’s further away, tends to attract a tougher crowd and the conditions here make the racing harder (and better).
A motor racing circuit in its other life, Llandow is a 1.3km loop of a vague oblong shape, with a chicane thrown in to make positioning in the bunch crucial, and the finish straight a 1.5% drag to really kick you in the head each lap. Add in to this its position near the coast, which brings a reliable block headwind down the back straight, you have a race which requires a great deal of determination just to survive and a good amount of tactical nous to compete. Plus good legs, obviously.
The Crit I am going to describe is only notable for one reason; I remember it really clearly.
Most races blur into one for me but the way this one played out has stuck in my mind. I was also involved at each key point in the race – which did me a fat lot of good when it came to sprinting for the win – as we will see. I remember pretty well what I was feeling and thinking at each stage, so I’ll try and describe this to give a bit more of an insight into the race than a pure race report.
This particular race was a Category 3/4, meaning it was more or less open to complete beginners and also some decent racers too. It was on an evening at the end of May so it wasn’t particularly warm, but it wasn’t particularly windy either. A blessing at Llandow if you plan to be on the front, or off the front at all. Though of note, the wind was coming from the opposite direction to usual, i.e. down the home straight.
We had a decent size team, 5 of us, and had a vague plan before the race which was mostly to get in any and all breaks that were attempted and assuming the race was all back together for the final, to try and set up a lead out. I have to be honest and say that I was hoping that it’d be me that got led out – I have a good kick especially from a reduced bunch, so if someone could give me a wheel and get me near the front I’d fancy my chances at finishing in a good position.
One of my team mates went off the front almost from the gun, taking one or two others with him. I was pleased about this as it meant all I had to do was sit in the wheels towards the front of the bunch and watch for any moves to bridge the gap. For the time being, I wasn’t working and the few laps he was away for gave me a chance to warm up properly. My memory is that this stage of the race felt pretty easy.
My team mate was brought back pretty quickly and there was a bit of a lull while everyone looked for someone else to do the work (especially up the home straight, into the wind and up the hill). I rolled through at the front but was careful not to pull too hard. Another break went shortly afterwards and this time we got 2 riders into it; again I tried to sit up near the front, taking shelter in the wheels but not riding on the front or peeling off quickly when I got there. I wasn’t actively blocking but I wasn’t helping either. My feeling was the break was too small to stay away for the whole race (which would be about 45 minutes long) so I was happy to bide my time, watch and wait.
The speed of the chase was quite high, so it wasn’t easy maintaining a position near the front, but it was better to burn a few matches doing that than drop back too far. The pace went up and down as the break was caught and the cat and mouse on the front continued. Then, after about 25 minutes of racing, as we rode around the last corner into the home straight, the whole front of the bunch seemed to collectively decide that they didn’t want to be on the front going up the hill into the wind and moved over to the outside of the track. I was left coming out of the bend carrying plenty of speed and a clear track in front of me. I didn’t think twice, and didn’t really change my pedalling, but clung to the inside of the bend and pushed on up the hill.
I quickly saw I’d caught the bunch napping and opened a gap, over which one rider bridged before the end of the straight and we immediately started working together. As he pulled through to take a turn I tried to work out what sort of a rider he was, what sort of a breakaway companion he’d be. I did this almost instantly and without even thinking about it; I checked out the state of his bike (clean? Aero?), his kit (I think I noted he had a skinsuit on – good sign), his pedalling stroke and whether he had shaved legs (this is true and he did and it was a good sign). I probably even tried to spot if he was riding with a power meter or not. All of this went out of the window as he took his turn on the front and I was instantly doing 400w just to hold his wheel. That first turn told me all I needed to know.
So we rode together for a while, always keeping a small gap on the bunch, which shrank for most of the lap and then stretched out while the bunch played the usual games of no-one wanting to do the work up the hill. We were committed at this point so riding more or less full gas the whole time. We quickly fell into a rhythm of doing 2/3rds of a lap turns – so we alternated who led up the drag.
I can’t remember how long but we’d done a good few laps when another few riders bridged across. I think it increased the group size to 5 or 6 and as we still had a gap I now started to feel we had a chance of staying away. I made sure I pulled hard at the front, keeping the speed smooth and as high as possible but not doing too much work.
There were 4 laps to go when I glanced around at the top of the home straight and realised that we’d been caught – the bunch was back on our wheels. Part of me was immediately relieved – now caught I could slip back into the bunch, into the refuge of the wheels to see if I could recover enough to contest the sprint. I was sitting 3rdwheel and the 2 guys in front of me, glanced back, realised the break was over, and pulled to the side. I was now on the front, more or less soft pedalling and waiting for the bunch to come swarming around. But they didn’t. The whole bunch, after chasing a 5 man break for ten minutes, sat on the wheels of the break.
I was suddenly furious. Did they expect me to lead the sprint out too? I suddenly went full-Hinault and stood up on the pedals and kicked. Hard. As hard as I could. I think I probably growled and I definitely said ‘fuck em!’ out loud as I did my best to ride away from everyone.
It worked. Kind of. I dropped the bunch, and pulled maybe 7 others with me. I dug deep and burned a whole load of matches but we got a gap and all started riding hard. The bunch wasn’t far behind but I started thinking again that it’d be possible to keep a small gap right to the finish, so the win could be contested between us. I also noticed that my original breakaway partner was still out front with me.
Then, the mistake happened that blew my race. We took the bell, the bunch still gapped but not far behind, when a rider from the breakaway jumped away. I was on the front at the time and I made a snap decision to chase him. It hurt. I was already in the red but I didn’t want him to get away. This wasn’t the mistake – the mistake was a few hundred metres later when had closed the gap a bit but not caught him. I looked around to see most of the break still on my wheel, and at that point I should have swung off and let someone else help with the chase. But I told myself that if I lost my position it would prevent me contesting the sprint. So I stayed on the front, and at the end of the back straight riders started coming past me; guys from the break who had been watching me blow myself up and also some strong guys who had bridged across.
Beyond thought at this point, I dug as deep as I could to stay within touching distance of the riders ahead of me; I’d done so much work off the front I didn’t want to come away with nothing. I came around the last bend, realised I was probably already too far back to contest the sprint but also desperate to at least get in the top ten, so I opened my sprint and pushed and pushed and pushed until eventually I managed to cross the line. At that point I more or less collapsed across my top tube.
7th. 3 points. I said on Strava that it was a brutal way to earn 3 points. For the last 5 minutes my average hear rate was 168 – significantly beyond what I’d aim for in a 10 mile TT, and I set a new max HR at the finish – 179. I averaged nearly 340 watts for that period with a few peaks of more than 1,000, and with an average of around 800 for the last 30 seconds.
Brutal. 3 points.
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