Monday, April 27, 2009

Track to the Future

Team Sprint; photo by Eloy Anzola

Scorching summer heat welcomed the return of racing to the Velodrome in Kissena Park, Queens this past weekend. I finally made my way out to the track for the first time towards the very end of the season last year. Racing at the track on Wednesday nights became one of my favorite activities of the entire cycling season. By the time the state championships had rolled around, I was completely hooked and immediately set my sights on opening weekend 2009 to resume racing on the velodrome.

Opening weekend, which I missed out on last year, is great. It is a perfect bookend to the states that will take place at the end of the season. It is a two-day-long event with plenty of racing, bigger-than-normal fields and some race formats that are less likely to be included in the Twilight series programs. For me, the Kilo is an event that I would like to really nail down this year, and the Opening Weekend is one of the few opportunities to practice in a race environment out in Queens. Similarly, match sprinting is a rare treat to be enjoyed only on special occasions.

This year, over 100 racers greeted the scorching sun and melting tar with eager smiles and sunscreen. It was a great chance to catch up with NYC's "other" bike racing scene, and the guys who often don't race on the road as much. Saturday, I also had the pleasure of introducing my team mate, Chad Marion, to the world of fixed gears, no brakes and left turns. I had been talking up the track for a while to him, so I was eager to see him hit the banking in the Cat5s. I lined up in the Cat4 field, as road and track categories are wholly separate and I have yet to earn my Cat3 on the track.

The first event of the day, the Kilo, is a major target for me this year. I have always loved the simple and brutal honesty that this race has. It calls for the rider to go as hard as possible for just over a minute. At Kissena, a very slow track, Andrew Lacorte posted the fastest kilo since the resurfacing of the velodrome at last year's state championships. That time was a 1:11.86. At the same race last year, I posted the third fastest time of the day, a 1:15.67, on my chrome Bianchi Pista with 36 spoke wheels and drop bars. This year, armed with a new bike, aero equipment and a little bit of experience under my belt, I wanted to go faster. Of course, its hard to know what to expect. Winds change the race remarkably, as do temperature of the track and probably forces that I'm not even aware of. The goal for this early attempt was to set a benchmark for the year. Something to use as a starting point when training towards States. A frantic last-second gear change left me with a less than relaxing warm up and I was off to the staging area for my ride. Kissena Velodrome is 400 meters and the Kilo is thus 2 1/2 laps. I took my position, clipped in and tried my best to project the mental image I have of Chris Hoy's famous start. Hearing the gun, I accelerated the bike as fast as possible. Between 120 and 150 meters in, I dropped into the aero bars and tried to hang on. The first lap and a half flew by, and I did my best to maintain control. Meanwhile the bumpy track did its best to knock me out of the sprinter's lane a few times. The last lap, riders really suffer. I tried to keep the pedals moving with the bell sounding like a distant echo. The last 200 meters came and went, and I crossed the line with no idea of how my ride went. I had to wait a while until guys started congratulating me on my ride. I still didn't know my time. When Ken Harris and Tony Slokar speculated that it may have been a 1:12, I didn't believe them. The official time came out to a 1:12.09. Now, I will look ahead to States, and see what I can do there. To be in such close company with a rider as accomplished as Andrew Lacorte, so early in the year, is truly something I'm proud of.

For our next event, the Cat4's lined up for the team sprint. This is a three lap race, similar to team pursuit, with the exception that the teams have three riders, and only one rider finishes the three laps. With each lap, a rider pulls off, basically setting up a 2 lap lead out for the final rider to rip off their fastest lap. Deverell "RSun" Smith of Luzzo's, Luke Stiles and I formed our composite team before the race, and coincidentally had the three fastest kilo times in the Cat4s. Luke, as a fast sprinter, led first. RSun took the second lap while I anchored. We rode smoothly and were able to keep a tight pace line through the ride. RSun gave me a great draft for the final lap and we came in with the top time of somewhere in the vicinity of 1:28.XX.

In the final event of the day, the 12 lap points race, we had 3 sprints on the table. Lining up, I had my eye on Giancarlo Bianchi, who won the points race in the Cat4s at the State Championships last year. He took off early, and I stayed at the front, making sure he didn't get too far away. I began reeling him back in with two laps until the sprint. With the bell for the first sprint, I began to make my move. By turn 3, I had enough of a gap to ease off the throttle, and after taking the points for first, I waited for a few guys to catch on and form a break. From this smaller group, we were able to contest the sprints without the chaos that would ensue with the full field of 22 riders in one bunch. I was able to take the top points in the final two sprints and win the points race. Heading home for the evening, I had accumulated 21 out of 21 possible points in the omnium by winning all three of my events.

Day two at Kissena provided even more sunshine and heat, if slightly smaller numbers of racers than Saturday. On the program for the Cat4s was a 9 lap scratch race, match sprints and a miss and out. The scratch race is a simple affair, where the first rider to cross the line wins--no additional explanation is necessary. I honestly don't remember much about this race, but I was able to go with an initial attack, and eventually pull away for the win on the last lap.

The match sprints, though fun, take a very long time. All the fields must be bracketed and even with 3-up match sprints (not what one thinks of in match sprints) we still had to go through several rounds in each field. In my first round match up, I benefited from my top-placed omnium standing as it determined the seeding. At Kissena, match sprints take two laps. got through my first two rounds without any complications. In the final, I decided to let the other riders set the early pace. I patiently sat high on the banking in third position until the first attack came with a lap to go. I sat in the draft until just about 200 meters to go and opened up the sprint, coming across in first.

After a very long weekend on the infield, we only had one event left. The miss and out. This race format is pretty fun, but can be dicey. It works by eliminating the last placed rider from the field each lap until 5 riders are left. Once the field is down to 5, there is a neutral lap and then the bell. Often, since most of the race happens at the back, riders get trapped on the inside. When this happens, and riders have nowhere to go but desperately want to stay in the race, crashes happen. Unfortunately, it only took a lap or two before our race was neutralized with the sound of the starter's gun due to a crash on the inside. When we came back around the track slowly, the sight of Jody, one of the friendliest regulars at the track (with one of the most beautiful steel bikes), lying face down on the apron was enough to make all of us sick. Fortunately, he was able to get up and make his way to the infield to await transport to the hospital. They lined us up to restart the race, but naturally, the wind was really taken out of our collective sails. I did my best to stay safe. I rode above the stayer's line the whole race and towards the front. I would rather suffer in the wind than get trapped down at the bottom of the track. When we had 5 guys, I upped the tempo and then upped it again with the bell lap. I gaped the field and was able to come in safely at the front for the last race of the day.

In the end, I won all the events in the Cat4. Hopefully, I will be able to advance to the 1/2/3 races as soon as Alan gives me the nod. I know that I am ready fitness-wise, but tactics will be a whole new ballgame. Most of the riders in the A-fields on Wednesday nights have a lot of experience under their belts. I can't wait to learn from them. In addition, I want to wish a speedy recovery to the few victims of crashes late on Sunday's program. Heat, dehydration, and large fields likely made for slightly sketchier than normal racing towards the end. Its always unfortunate to see that happen. I also want to shout out to my team mate, Chad, who won his first omnium, racing in the Cat5s. I have no doubts that he will have no trouble continuing his transition to the track this year.