Saturday, May 30, 2009

A little Spontaneity: The Toronto Twilight Crit at St. Lawrence Market

The T-Dot.

I took Wednesday and Thursday off the bike this week, partly due to weather, and partly due to needing a little rest after a hard race weekend. Last week was another 19 hour, 650k week capped off by 3 races, so it seemed a little R&R was in order. I spent the week catching up on bills, doing housework, getting my daughter set up for a visit at an amazingly cool independent Montessori school we're considering for next year, and I even entered a short story in a flash-fiction contest. All in all it was a good week for non bike related life.

Friday I was planning to ride for 3 hours or so just to get rolling again, and was looking forward to a low key, no travel weekend with just a local crit on Sunday. Around 10:00am, with Silas off at school for the day and on to her mom's for the weekend after that, I was hanging out with Charmaine, eating pancakes and contemplating the day, not in any kind of a hurry to do anything. Then she got an email from her dad up in Ontario about a twilight crit in downtown Toronto with a $10,000 prize list...starting in 9 hours. Char just got her Visa renewed, and sometimes when that happens she gets antsy to go home for a bit, just on general principle. She gave me a bit of a grin and said "let's go."

At first I was unsure, considering two days off and legs stiff as concrete, not to mention seeing the leader board of last year's race full of Symmetrics and Race Pro (now Planet Energy) riders. But a quick phone call to Toronto cycling legend and race promoter, Ziggy at ZM cycles and Fitness confirmed that I could in fact get into the race, and that there would be primes galore in addition to the advertised prize list. Given the fact that I'm done with my MA, don't have a job, and do have pretty good form right now, the opportunity to make some money was too good to pass up, besides the fact that the event looked awesome. So we were off.

Of course we made good time until the Peace bridge past Buffalo, where we sat in traffic for 20 minutes waiting to get through the border, and then once on the outskirts of Toronto on the QEW, we found ourselves stuck in Friday evening, Blue Jays game traffic, plus the throng of political curios headed to the George W. Bush & Bill Clinton conversation (?!). Who knew? The race start was at 7:30 and I still had to register. 6:00, in traffic, 6:30, in traffic, 6:45, in traffic. In the end I made it just in time, managed to beg the ladies at registration for a number, and made it back to the car at about 7:10. Sweet. Adrenaline warms up the legs as well as spin-ups do.

The course was a pretty straightforward and short rectangle, with the long sides about 350 meters and the short sides 100 meters or less, with the last corner coming at the top of a slight hill, and corner 1 leading into a downhill, followed by corner 2 which was really fast. 2000+ people lined the course, cheering enthusiastically and, being Toronto, everyone was so nice, it was weird. Even the riders, even the cops, for that matter. The whole course was lined with cattle guards and barriers, and looked to be about exactly 3 meters wide, a lot like all of those Giro finishes. Basically, the whole event just felt legit. The cops and volunteer marshals were really respectful of the riders and the fans were unbelievable, really psyched, and really into the racing. Like every other amateur bike racer or domestic US pro, I spend a lot of time racing my heart out on farm roads in the middle of nowhere, with no one around to notice except cattle and angry motorists, or in industrial park criteriums. So I am not yet so jaded that racing in front of an enthusiastic crowd and being treated like a professional athlete is old hat to me, I was psyched.

Me on the inside, Ryan Nye in the foreground

To the business: Planet Energy had a squad of 6 or so riders, including Andrew Randell, and they were the clear favorites. Garneau, JetFuel, and Mazur Coaching had a bunch as well. The MVP team from Rochester was representing with a few guys and beyond that it was an assortment of Canadian cat 1/2 guys from whom I had no idea what to expect. The vibe was friendly but tense, definitely more friendly than any big money American race I have been to, and guys were cracking jokes as we started our neutral parade lap around the course to stage on the finish line. I had lined up near DFL but made up 40 or 50 spots on the parade lap and was starting midfield in the pack of 100+ starters. The course looked fast, and the funny, narrow, uphill corner was sure to be problematic, so I figured I would need to move up as soon as possible.

The start was fast, but not ridiculous, and as the laps started to tick by, I started to loosen up. The pace was high, but inconsistent, and the general level of criterium skill and resultant cornering speed seemed quite a bit lower than what I was dealing with in NJ last weekend, or in most New England crits, for that matter. Guys were going fast, but in a weird way: brake through the corner, then full sprint down the straightaway. So rather than a smooth 50kph pace like I expected, it was more of a cyclocross effort, or like a points race, sprint after sprint after sprint. This actually suits me pretty well, physiologically, but it's a funny head to get into, and the racing was pretty negative, tactically.

Early on Andrew Randell from Planet Energy got away solo, and by the time I got up to the front of the field about 10 laps into the 90 minute + 5 lap race, he already had almost 30 seconds on a course where the lap times were averaging around 1:20. I have no idea how Garneau and Jet Fuel let this happen, and hats off to Randell. Not only was he the best guy there, he has Optimus Prime tattooed on his calf, so he's not exactly hard to keep track of. Had I been there, I would have covered it, instead I was warming up and discovering that my legs actually felt ok, though my top end was lacking a bit. There was some confusion about 30 minutes in when Keir Plaice, one of Randell's teammates, crashed out in turn 2, and most people thought that Randell had gone down, so the chase lost its impetus, and Randell proceeded to lap the field with ease.

With about 45 minutes left to race the light rain that had started got heavy, and eventually became a hard, cold rain. Somewhere in here I won a mess of primes, which was cool, and the crows was great. Since Planet Energy didn't care about the primes, they chased me slowly so I was able top stay away for 2 laps on 2 occasions and both times the announcer was nice enough to give me a second bell to race for, so I cleaned up on gift certificates, like whoa. What was odd was that none of these adventures was followed by a counter-attack, and the field, with one or two exceptions, seemed content to let the Planet Energy boys set tempo until it was time to sprint. As the rain really slicked things up, we got into a rhythm of near-stop in each corner, and full blast down the two long straightaways. There is no more exhausting way to achieve a slow overall average speed.

1 lap to go. That's me with zombie eyes on the right about 6 wheels back

Toward the end of the race, it became really easy to hold position because the attrition was ridiculous: 102 starters and 24 finishers. It was aggressive, but not dangerous and everyone seemed content to race with their legs and take few chances, which was nice. I was just argy-bargy enough to maintain my spot in the top 10 for the last lap, keeping an eye on Ryan Nye from MVP and one of the Bicicletta riders who looked all trackie muscular. I should have been more aggressive and attacked into the last two corners, as this was how I won primes all night, and it seemed pretty foolproof. But it's amazing the deals your psyche can make with itself when you're tired and cold and wet. I figured the PE guys would be too cooked from setting tempo to sprint and with three of them on the front, it seemed that 4th wheel or so behind their train was close enough for the 250 meter sprint. There was a bit of a tailwind, but I was pretty sure that whoever jumped straight out of the turn would blow and get passed by the line. I wasn't wrong, but the guys in front of me were all good sprinters, and that goofy uphill off-camber corner in the rain had us all basically sprinting from a near trackstand. So I passed a few guys and wound up 6th in the sprint, 7th in the race. Definitely a solid result considering I was solo with no teammates and woke up Friday morning not knowing I was going to race, but I think podium was realistic if I had kept my mojo working just a little longer. Live and learn, and I won 500 bucks for the placing on top of my month of free coffee from Jet Fuel, 200 dollar bike shop gift certificate, etc. So it was by far the best payday I have had at a bike race in a while, and a hell of a lot of fun.

I made some new friends in the Canadian peloton, which was cool, and I was seriously impressed with the community support for the event. The people just loved it. A late dinner just off the race course with Char and her parents capped off a pretty stellar evening, and I always sleep well up there in Ontario, it's just so quiet.



*Photos courtesy of Canadian Cyclist