Tried my first bike race yesterday. I have ridden a little in packs of up to 10 riders but never in competition. This race was a laidback citizen's race, ie. the slowest type of pack racing one can find. There were just a few guys with shaved legs and lots of excess subq to be seen.
I had been told that these races often break up into smaller packs almost immediately and I had planned on going with the second-fastest group. I figured that the second group would work together fluently, whereas the very front group would see the guys attacking each other for the win.
But the pack of maybe 80 riders stayed together. I sat in the way back, unsure of what to do. The pace went unpredictably from fast so the pack would string out, to slow so everyone would have to hit the brakes.I saw tires rubbing and a few guys having to ride on the loose-gravel shoulder; both made me nervous. I tried to be the very last guy, but this is harder to control than it sounds. A few times, I found myself with a guy on both sides leaning into sharp turns, completely unsure of which line to take, but hoping it would be the same as theirs. Scary.
Thankfully, people started falling off the back. Some would go out to the side and stop pedalling, to signal that they had to drop back. Some, however, would try to hold on to the very bitter end, so a gap of a few yards would open up. It was hard to gauge who was truly being dropped and who simply let a little gap form. In any case, whenever someone dropped off, I would pass them and sprint back up to the field.
This was fun and exhilirating stuff. This kind of knife's edge racing is not like a running race at all. A few times, a chunk of the pack would fall off together and a few (including me) had to bridge back up. It's a cool feeling of digging deep, being completely out of breath, and then getting back into the shelter of the pack.
We had gotten to a point, maybe 25 miles in, where the pack was down to some 35 guys. It had started to feel like we had shed the weaker riders. I saw no beer bellies in front of me and no one seemed like they were working insanely hard just to sit in. I drank a little from my water bottle, which meant having to fall back 10 yards before I dared look down to get the bottle. I had also had great plans for a Powerbar but it didn't seem realistic at the time.
Then suddenly on a little uphill, the pack broke in two. The gap formed very quickly. On TV, it looks so easy to find space in a pack but in real life, you have to worry about traffic (the course was open to traffic in both directions) and all the other riders, who were standing up pumping on the uphill. It took a little too long to see that the split was real and permanent, and by the time I got past the slower pack, it had grown to maybe 70 yards or so. I stared sprinting, hoping some of the guys would come with me to lend a hand. One guy came along and this happened to be one of my attendings from the department. We tried for a long time to bridge the gap but they were going really fast in front. I was hoping for a sharp turn, which always slows down and stretches out the pack, but none came.
We sat there for a good 3 or 4K and got as close as 30 yards from the back of the pack. Frustratingly close, of course, but we just couldn't close the gap. We decided to wait for the next group but they had fallen so far back they were out of sight. We rode on alone for a little while, until we noticed we had gotten off course. Long story short is that we found the course, but at the wrong place and decided to drop out.
Imagine sitting with a heart rate of 200, in your first bike race, all senses hyperacute. And then 5 minutes later, you're lost and out of the race.
Looking back, a smart move would have been to sit near the front of the pack. But, then again, I don't have the pack-riding skills and I would put myself and others at risk. After the race, people were commenting on the size of the pack. In some races, they send off riders in packs of 20 with 2-minute intervals. This seems like a safer option to me.
All in all, a fun day, especially talking about the race afterwards. Biking is a little more wild and adventurous than running, and the tales were a little taller.
The Girl did really well and rode around 18 mph on average. She had some minor mishaps including a little detour, but she also had a fun day. We'll have to do more of them, preferrable the ones with a staggered start.