Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Friday Night at the Track

So I did my first track race at the velodrome!

Photos courtesy of Mark Bermal (his flickr page)

Note of explanation for Mom and Dad: As the photo indicates, I was not on foot running the 100m like high school track; I was on a special bike designed to be ridden at a velodrome, affectionately called "the track". Believe it or not, grown people regularly gather together after work, get on bikes with no hand-activated brakes, and race each other till we are too tired to continue. We even pay for the privilege of doing so. Only $5 for Velodrome members - what a bargain!

Let me start by saying that till now the thought of track racing scared the buh-jelly beans out of me. Which is kinda surprising since I race exert downhill.

My impression of track racing up till now:
groups of highly competitive riders get on fixed-gear bikes with no real brakes and travel at high speeds mere inches from one another just waiting for that ill-timed sneeze, unfortunate fly down the throat, or other unspeakable catastrophe that will send riders into a pile of muscle and bike parts.

It just seemed so wrong on so many levels, and certainly not my cup of tea. Give me
a fat-tire bike and a steep, rocky, rutted-out switchback with a run-out of about 2 feet before the edge of a 30-foot cliff any day. At least I can reasonably calculate my chance of survival. On a track, I'm at the mercy of... OK, God, ultimately, and subject to the skill of the least experienced rider out there, who... OK, fine, so it's me.

So what possessed me to go to the track in the first place?

*cue the harp making "long ago" sounds*

It started as an innocent little product knowledge class at Specialized Bicycle Component University back in Dec 2006, and an enthusiastic instructor (Hi, Jon!) who told everyone in the class that their riding would improve dramatically if they rode just ten miles a week on a fixed gear.

Eager to test this theory, and looking for a challenge, I converted my old road bike with semi-horizontal dropouts into a fixed-gear.

The bike when it still had derailleurs.

As it was December, the guys in the bike shop where I worked were eager for something more interesting to do than organize derailleur hangers. No sooner had I expressed my intentions to convert the bike to a fixie than I find it in the bike stand almost stripped of parts. To "fix" a bike that's not broken (ahem), you remove the derailleurs and replace the three front chain rings with a single one. My mechanic and good buddy Steve removed the cassette from the rear wheel and spaced out the hub to allow for a single cog. Finally, a heavy single-speed chain was put on and I was ready to go.

Modifying the paint job, so that I have a "Lemon"

Finished product - commuter fixie ready to rock and roll.

I put a commuter gear on there to start - a 36 x 16 - so that I can climb hills. I ride the bike that way for fun for almost two years, including at Midnight Madness. Because chances to be silly and outrageous should never be passed up lightly, I dress in a modified business suit and cleat-compatible pumps to ride the fixie downtown.

Midnight Madness on the Lemon fixie. Ah, good times!

Then in Aug 2008, I decide to take a class at the velodrome. The instructors, Pam and Lisa, throw me into the "Advanced" class (and I use that term liberally) because I've been riding a fixed gear for two years. I have a great time, and by the grace of God, manage to remember most of the rules of the track and don't hurt myself or anyone else.

I would not have considered track racing, but then last week I got this email from the Velodrome
Association talking about a Friday Night Race for Sprinters, Women-only, Juniors, and D-grade. They promise a relaxed atmosphere, little to no pressure, and beginner-friendly races. Intrigued by the idea that I wouldn't be thrown into the track racing deep-end and expected to swim, but can just wade in a little at a time, I make plans to go to the Friday night races.

On Friday, June 5, I show up at the velodrome and
see my good friend Kim. Cool! A friendly face! I see other people I know, including one entire family whose teenage son races. The daughter would be racing too, but they don't allow ten-year-olds on the track tonight. Ten-year-olds. Just... wow. It would be so great to see Jane racing at the track when she's ten. Big props to parents Jacqueline and Jeff!

I'm assigned a number, and Tony and Kim help me pin it on my jersey.

Tony pins my number on my jersey.

Warm-up begins and we all line up on the wall, then peel off one by one to follow the motorcycle who will pace us. Women and juniors ride together, and after several laps we suddenly seem to speed up, then slow down. The effect ripples through the group, and by the time I recover, I'm more than two bike lengths away from the guy in front of me.

I fight to catch up, pushing the pedals for all I'm worth. Then I hear a teenage voice behind me, "Take one hard pedal stroke!" Some kid I have never met is coaching me. I smile inwardly and follow his advice pushing hard for one hard turn. I'm still behind and struggling. "Now take two hard strokes," he tells me. I take two hard strokes. He continues to coach me till I start to close in on the rider in front, but I still can't catch up. "Are you out?" he calls to me. Ugh. It is definitely not a good sign when you get dropped in the warm-up. Knowing there's no way I can keep this pace, I concede defeat. "I'm out!" I call, and pull up-track and away from the group. Looking on the bright side, I just learned a pedaling technique for catching someone in front of you.
I will not find out till the following week that my chain is too tight and is binding, causing me to work much harder than I should.

After the group warm-up, the racing begins. Juniors first, then the women are called to line up at the wall.

Lined up on the wall. Photo: Mark Bermal

I have no idea what to expect, but I figure I can watch Kim and just do what she does.

Our first race is six laps, with the sprint in the last lap. Before we even get to lap two, I am SPENT trying to stay up with the other girls (that's me in the back in blue). Before the race is over, they will lap me. Sigh.

Women's race Photo: Mark Bermal

After this race I realize several things:
1. This wasn't nearly as terrifying as I thought it would be.
2. It was really kinda fun!
3. There is nothing like getting really smoked in a public place to motivate you to get more serious about your training.

Muscles rebelling and out of breath, I limp back to the staging area, as well as you can limp on a track bike, and rest before the next race. There will be three or four more races before the night is over, with each race category taking turns on the track.

The next race is a three-lap race that we will repeat three times. Knowing I am clearly out-classed, I do the best I can, and then get out of the way. On the third repeat, Kim tells me to stay on her wheel, which I do.
On the last lap when we approach the final turn and head into the straightaway, she calls to me, "OK, Laura! Sprint!" "What?!" I call back. "Attack now!" she says. "You want me to pass you?!" I call to her. "YES! Try to pass me!!" she says.

With every ounce of strength I have left, pull to the right of her and push hard to pass her. Involuntarily, my mouth opens and I roar, "RRRRRrrrrrAAAAAAAA!!!" and I push even with her. Startled and surprised, she stands and pounds away, unwilling to yield her lead. We cross the line nostrils flaring as the crowd looks on, not knowing quite how to react to a woman roaring across the finish line, but liking it nonetheless.

All in all, it was a great night of fun, learning, camaraderie, and pain (the good kind). Maybe this track stuff isn't so terrifying after all.