By Ben Woolston
Penn State was probably the most fun race weekend I’ve done so far (out of a whopping total of four).
It all started with the TTT on Saturday morning. I was the only C rider from MIT this weekend, so I dragged up two of our D riders (Brian and Kamal) and our intro rider (Ernesto) to join me on the 9.5-mile course, which included 2 significant hills and a couple of tight turns made all the worse by the slippery conditions and fog. We started out pretty hard (my fault), and on the first of the big hills Ernesto dropped off the back after a really good effort on his pulls. Having been coached during practice on Friday by the preeminent Zach LaBry, we were in good form and riding pretty smoothly together, and were able to keep up a pretty good pace along the flats and roar down the descents (max speed 41 mph!). By the second hill we were all pretty tired, but we dug deep and kept it together to finish 5th overall, only 50 seconds behind the winning team – a terrific result given it was Brian’s first race and that most of our team wasn’t comprised of C riders.
Then came the road race. I did my undergraduate at Penn State and biked quite a bit around the area, so I knew this was going to be a tough ride. The climb up Black Moshannon averages 5% grade for about 5.5 miles, and until this weekend I’d never ridden up it in one go, let alone in a race! After a very fast (and somewhat scary) descent from the start line, the pack was pretty much all together at the bottom of the climb – that was soon to change. One of the Penn State riders (who last weekend beat not only the entire C field but also the entire B field in the uphill Princeton time trial) led the charge up the hill. There was a group of five of us who stuck with him for about 30 seconds, but then he disappeared off ahead never to be seen again. I was then in a group of three, with a Bucknell rider (who had been with me in the breakaway at Rutgers) and a Dartmouth rider (who had won in the Princeton RR the week before). It wasn’t long, though, before I was feeling the work I’d done in the TTT and they dropped me, leaving me by myself in 4th. The next 25 minutes were painful – My legs were crying out for mercy, and I looked down at my computer at one point and saw a heart rate of 193 bpm. By the time I was almost at the top of the climb, a Cornell rider caught up to me. I might have been tired, but there was no way I was going to give up to this guy, so I stuck with him all the way to the top. Occasionally we saw glimpses of the Dartmouth and Bucknell riders, so we worked together on the descent to try to gain back some ground, but we never saw them again. Coming round the final corner (maybe 500 m from the finish line) I was in front, and knew I was in trouble, because all the Cornell rider would have to do was sit on my wheel then come around me right at the end. I made a couple of desperate attempts to drop him, by attacking and moving left and right across the road, but he managed to stay firmly on my wheel. In a final desperate attempt, about 300 m out I flicked my elbow in the vain hope that he would pull through. To my utmost surprise, he did! So I just sat on his wheel for a few seconds then sprinted around him just before the line, edging him out for 4th place, about 20 seconds behind the 2nd and 3rd place guys and almost 2 minutes behind the lone PSU rider. When I talked to the Cornell rider after the race, he said he hadn’t known where the finish line was, which was why he pulled through. It just goes to show that coach Nicole is right – knowing the finish is critical!
Having heard stories from teammates about the crit last year at Penn State – which earned the nickname “The Slip-n-Slide” – I was feeling pretty nervous about Sunday’s race. Owing to the technicality of the course, the two divisions (C1 and C2) were split for this race, so my race was only a small field of ~25 riders. On Adam’s (and others’) advice, I got to the start line early, and as the race started I was close to the front. Right from the get-go, an Army rider got the pace going pretty high, and the pack strung out very quickly. I was taking the corners pretty well, and on the second lap found myself unexpectedly off the front with about a 3-4 second gap. I was reluctant to go solo at this point (since there weren’t even lap cards up yet), but I knew that a single rider could go through the turns much faster than the pack and I was feeling pretty good, so I gunned it pretty hard for a couple of laps and opened up a bit more of a gap between me and the pack. Knowing I couldn’t sustain that effort for the whole race, I eased up a little on the straight sections, but still focused on taking the corners hard and fast, and for a while I was maintaining the gap. A UVM rider started to make an attempt to catch up to me (which would have been nice, as having someone to work with off the front would make life a lot easier), but eventually he gave up and started pulling the pack. On the first prime lap (I can’t really remember the exact number), coming round the second-to-last corner, I heard a pop as my back tyre flatted. That was the end of the breakaway, but I used the skills honed in a couple of ‘multi-sport events’ (ahem) over the summer to run my bike as fast as I could to the pit. There, Katie Quinn gave me her back wheel (thanks Katie!) and the mechanics changed it over while I frantically watched the pack come round on the next lap. Because I’d been off the front, the official gave me two free laps, so I rejoined the race and was almost immediately back near the front. The middle of the race is a bit of a blur, but I spent some time (probably too much) at the front, and then just tried to conserve while staying near the front until only a few laps remained. With two laps to go, I was in the top ten, but knew I had to move up if I wanted a shot at winning. In the final straightaway on that lap, a Dartmouth and another rider opened up a small gap at the front, so I gunned it from my position to catch up to them and take third wheel. The timing of this was really lucky, because I was able to slot in behind them, in the gap in front of the pack, right before the first corner and hold my speed, rather than trying to fight back into a tight pack. In the chicane on the back side of the course, the Dartmouth rider went down, so I was in second wheel behind a guy who was rapidly tiring. He took the second-to-last corner badly, and as I came past him out of the corner I knew this was my chance, so I went as hard as I possibly could and gave it everything I had for the final section. I had no idea if anyone was close behind me – I just put my head down and pedaled for dear life. Adam yelled something to me as I passed where he was standing, but I’ve no idea what it was – I just kept pedaling. When I crossed the line, and no one had come around me, I couldn’t believe it. I was hurting pretty badly, but I just got my first crit win!
This weekend was a fantastic experience. The races were a ton of fun, and I got to spend some time with some old friends relaxing (and eating) before the long drive back to Boston.