I almost pulled the plug on this one. In more than 14 years of criterium racing, I can count the number of races on one hand in which I seriously considered pulling the plug for reasons other than injury. I stayed in for my teammates – and ultimately played a part in Lauren Hall securing the silver medal and Sam Schneider winning the U23 jersey, her tenth national title. I’m happy I gritted my teeth and stuck with it, but the crash fest of a criterium did not make it easy.
The Augusta, Georgia course was slightly different than the course used here last year. They ran the race in the opposite direction and added one little dog leg (two extra turns or a little zigzag). Other than that, it was the same super straightforward, wide open, long stretches of road used last year. The course is not technical. The pavement is crappy.
It’s not a national championships caliber course. Period.
There were crashes galore last year. While a wide open course is always more dangerous than a technical one, I had attributed some of those crashes to the terrible weather and the crazy decision made to reduce our race from twenty laps to five laps mid-race. Major chaos ensued, of course. I was somewhat optimistic that without these factors more of us would keep things upright.
A crash from the gun meant a restart. I should have known then how dangerous this race would be.
The problem with courses like this is that they allow too many riders to move around the course too freely. A tight, narrow, fast course forces a selection. The less technically savvy riders are forced to the back, away from the places where they maybe shouldn’t be. A wide open course like this one allows the field to balloon out. It means six riders abreast dive through a corner instead of one or two. It’s harder to keep speeds high enough to keep the field strung out on an open course. A bunched together field can create havoc, and this bunched together field certainly did.
Oh, and we raced at 8PM, so we were looking straight into the setting sun as we headed down the finishing stretch.
After the initial crash, we did one lap around the course. They restarted the lap counter back to 31 laps and sent us off again after the course had been cleared.
The race was never really that fast. It was obvious that certain teams were invested in a bunch sprint, so they weren’t especially active. We were right there with them. We wanted the race to come to a sprint because we were confident that Lauren could take the win.
There were constant crashes throughout the race. Jennifer Wheeler had a particularly heavy crash and suffered a serious concussion. I started to consider pulling out following her crash. It just didn’t seem worth it. Personally, I saw five major crashes. I also saw people getting pushed in from the pit constantly. I asked our mechanic after the race if there had been a lot of flats. There hadn’t been. He told me that only one person in the pit had flatted. All the others were there for a post-crash free lap.
Speeds finally picked up during the last third of the race. Riders were forced to hold their lines a little more and the field became a bit more strung out, allowing the race to feel slightly safer.
(photo credit: deanwarrenphotography.com)
We lined things up on the front with five laps remaining. There were a few more attacks that caused some reshuffling towards the head of the bunch. With two laps to go, I was driving the pace on the front when Jade Wilcoxson (Optum p/b Kelly Benefits Strategy) attacked. I picked up the pace to bring her back, and as the gap come down, counter-attacks flew. At that point, my race was over.
Originally, I had been tasked with leading out both Lauren and Sam in the last few corners during the final lap. I ended up having to do a different job with two to go, and Lauren and Sam were forced to improvise a bit.
I’m not entirely sure how the last lap played out beyond what my teammates told me. With my job done, I pulled from the race and watched the sprint from the finish.
Lauren said Theresa Cliff-Ryan (Exergy Twenty12) got the first jump through the last turn. Lauren was able to follow her, but Theresa got such a good jump that she opened up a little gap on Lauren before Lauren was able to react. Lauren was inching her way back to Theresa and closed the gap just before the line. It was too close to call without checking the finish line photos. Sam finished fifth in the sprint to take the U23 title.
I’m happy for Lauren. She obviously proved she can sprint against one of the best sprinters in the US. I’m also stoked for Sam.
It was a good team effort. Second is bittersweet, but we were satisfied with how we raced. We had a plan, and things didn’t go exactly according to that plan – but we all improvised really well. We did everything right. We set things up as best as we could. A matter of inches decided the title on the line. It’s a chance we took when we decided we wanted to invest in a field sprint.
All images provided by Jonathan Devich/epicimages.us except as noted above
Full results and gallery here: http://www.cyclingnews.com/races/usa-elite-road-national-championships-2012/elite-u23-women-criterium/results