Saturday, June 04, 2005

Sprinting for the experts

Or, how to finish third in a two-man sprint

I must first state that there was essentially no difference between finishing second and third, because only the winner got flowers and there was no cash. Racing at its purest - I love it. But I did manage to finish third in a two-man sprint, and that takes some doing!

On the urgings of Jules, who told me about the local race he does near Kruishoutem, I decided to give it a try today (Saturday). There were no kermises remotely close to me, and there are none next week either, so this presented a bit of a change from the Saturday morning Schelde ride.

It was a classic four-corner industrial park crit. A four kilometre circuit with two bridges over the E40 each lap, and a huge wind that was behind us down the main straight and against us up the back. It was about 25 km from Gent, all into the wind, but I got there with plenty of time to spare and to get rained on. Just a passing storm.

There was actually a pretty decent crowd there, and I signed up for my season licence and number, which costs €15, and paid another couple of euros for the entry. The dude organising it understood I was English, so he explained the rules to me in French. Dutch would have been OK, really! Anyway, there wasn't much that needed explaining: it was 15 laps for a total of 60 km, starting at 2pm.

Being a spring chicken of nearly 34, I got put in the A race, which was fine. We had about 30 starters, and after warming up by huddling out of the rain next to the organiser's car, we set off in the wet. I had no idea what to expect, although I was fairly sure that the level would be a bit lower than a kermiskoers. I noticed Andrew Benson's begeleider there too, which was a bit worrying. He seems to have expanded in size a bit around the waist region. He wasn't in my grade.

It wasn't only the fitness of the riders either, there was a big range in bike handling ability and all-round sketchiness, which combined with the powerful wind made for some interesting manoeuvring on the opening laps. Like the guy who wanted to come up through the right hand side of the bunch when the wind was coming from the right and there was of course no room. He should have saved himself and everyone else the bother by staying down the back.

I tried to keep out of trouble, and didn't worry about chasing any of the breaks that went, because they all seemed to come back despite the fact that we were only averaging 37 km/h for the first four laps. On lap 5, a more serious looking break went and I decided to stretch the legs a bit and get across to it. That lifted the average speed very quickly and we ended up with five with a nice rhythm, and I thought that might be the start of a selection.

But after a couple of laps, I looked back and the peloton had come back to us. Sigh. Sit back for a bit more and watch a different break go while trying to avoid crashing. At least the rain had stopped.

It was about the halfway point when I saw the new Famous Five up the road were getting away, and the bunch didn't really seem capable of pulling them back. One guy had just tried to bridge on his own, and as I've said in the past, a solo bridge attempt is bad because you need someone to play three dummy hands and you have to shield your thoughts from yourself otherwise you'll guess your next move.

So I made it easy for him. I moseyed on up to him at 55 km/h, this being the tailwind section, and forcefully urged him to get on my wheel as he was floundering a bit. I could have just blasted straight by him but this wasn't that sort of a race. He even managed to do a couple of turns and in half a lap, we had hooked onto the five leaders, which were now eight because we had caught the organiser and a few of his buddies.

That made it messy for a while until a dark blue rider did a fairly substantial turn along the finish straight and we blew everyone out the back, distilling the group down to six. Five of us were dressed in blue, which is all the rage these days. The other guy had a T-Mobile US national team jersey on, but it wasn't the Berchem dude.

Mr big-turn-in-the-53x12-dark-blue had had enough after that, and sat on for a while after doing a couple more turns. He was bloody strong and I thought he was plotting a massive attack, but after a few laps I looked back and he was gone. How odd. So we were down to five, including the kid I'd dragged across, Mr T-Mobile, and a couple of others.

We were now approaching the business end of the bike race, as the great Stuey Doyle would say. Two and a half laps to go, peloton nowhere in sight, we go over the top of one of the bridges and I decided to wind it up a bit with a stealth attack. It worked, because at the bottom I had a bit of a gap and I set about increasing it into the headwind. Unfortunately, I couldn't shake one guy who was holding me at 5 seconds for the rest of the lap. I tried, but he got me exactly one lap later. Dang.

The Others were nowhere to be seen, so we just cruised along for the last lap and a half. I didn't feel confident enough in attacking him again, as the element of surprise was lost, and we weren't working hard enough. So he led onto the finishing straight, and slowed...right 20 km/h...put on the brakes a few times...look back...see we still have a decent gap...but the Others are winding up their sprint...more slowing...more brakes...he didn't want to lead out, and neither did I...we weren't close enough to the finish.

300 metres to go and he realises he'd better get his arse into gear as one of the Others is coming up to us at fast speed. I held his wheel as Mr T-Mobile blew by us, then my breakaway colleague drew level with him and got it on the line. Oh well, that saved some face for us I guess. What a way to squander a lead! In hindsight, he might have actually been waiting for the other guy to catch us so he could get a lead out. Nice.

Also in hindsight, it wouldn't have mattered if I'd led out or not, as I could barely hold this guy's wheel when he went. I looked at the speedo and it said 64 km/h, which is not bad from a slow wind-up, even with a tailwind. One of the few situations where an 11 cog would be handy. So no flowers for me, but it was fun all the same. It's a pleasant change being one of the stronger riders in the race! Maybe have another go next week...

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