This morning, I continued my foray into amateur bicycle racing by lining up for the Boulder-Roubaix. The more well-known road race – and the one that acts as the namesake for the race I did — the Paris-Roubaix, also happened to take place today.
What makes the Paris-Roubaix a popular professional road race, and this aspect provides the basis for many amateur spin-offs, is that not all of that road is paved. For the 161 mile Paris-Roubaix, the non-paved portion is comprised of 28 (or so) sections of cobblestone that the riders must ride on... for a total of 33 miles. As for Boulder's version, the course was more-forgiving/less-punishing, as it not nearly as long — 2 laps of an 18.7 mile course for my category — but does have a non-paved element... 57% of it is on rolling dirt roads.
I did 2 laps of the course last weekend to preview it, make mental notes of what line to take on the dirt sections, and get a feel of what it's like to ride a bike that's meant to be rode on pavement on dirt. What that exercise didn't prep me for was the mass of humanity at the start line this morning. My racing category and another category were scheduled to start at the same time. Combined, there were well over 100 cyclists in these two categories alone (I learned after the race that my category had over 100 in it.) I didn't get the starting position I wanted (near the front), so had to settle for mid-pack when the whistle blew at 8:50a.
The course started on one of the dirt sections and almost immediately the impact was being felt by some... there were 3 flats in the first 2.5 miles, one or two people skidded out on some loose dirt, and the bouncing jarred loose some water bottles (Let me tell you, those aren't fun to dodge when surrounded by a bunch of people who are dodging the same thing.) I did my best to keep my wits about me, stay on the smoother sections of the dirt, be patient about moving up in the pack, and draft off of people who looked like they knew what they were doing. And of course, stay upright.
Early during the second dirt section, I was hit by a minor setback as my bike computer fell victim to the bumps. I didn't even notice it was gone until midway through the section when I looked down and saw it missing. Not that it would make me go faster, but it could help me in making sure I don't go too hard, too early. I wasn't about to turn around to look for it, so I continued with my M.O. for the rest of the 1st lap – keep my wits, find the right line, draft off of people (read: save energy), be patient, and of course, stay upright.
To some extent this strategy was working as I still with the main pack, but I was still at the back of that pack. While that positioning does provide some great drafting potential, it also made me susceptible to the "slinkeying dynamic." To explain: where I was was a little more bunched up than the front of the pack, so as I, for example, went around a moderately sharp turn, I had to slow down a little bit more to account for my surroundings. I would the inevitably drop back a bit, and so have to do a hard acceleration to make up lost ground. This inevitably led to some hard breaking (lost energy) to avoid clipping the back wheel of a rider in front of me, which again would cause a little gap to form and necessitate another acceleration. This happened quite a bit throughout the race.
I don't have much experience to base this on, but I was surprised how well things stayed together throughout the first lap. I fully expected someone/some people to attack midway through this lap to leave the rest of us to hopefully chase them down. No attack took place, so as we closed out lap 1 (on a 4 mile dirt section that made my eyes rattle) I was still in the mix... it was a pretty big mix (maybe 40 riders at this point) and I was still at the back of it.
I wasn't surprised, then, as things picked up just a little at the beginning of the 2nd lap. With fewer riders to contend with, it was easier to pick the part of the road I wanted to ride on, and the slinkeying effect was less pronounced. This meant I was still wasting energy so I tried to slowly and efficiently gain some ground. I wasn't alone in this, but perhaps because I scouted the course a week ago, I knew where to and not to try and do this. The beginning of the 2nd dirt section is a gradual downhill that leads into a moderately sharp left hand turn. Given my speed and knowledge from the scout ride, I knew the outside line was the wrong place to be. Four other riders, though, did not and hit the very loose dirt that was out there and went down. It created another gap in the pack, which meant I had to accelerate hard again to make up lost ground.
During the last pavement section, we caught up to two riders who tried broke away from the pack about 5 miles before, so things relaxed a little. It was then when I began to make my way up through the pack some, for I knew it would be anything but relaxed once we turned onto the last dirt section that lead to the finish. Sure enough, the pace picked up shortly after we made the turn to complete the remaining 4 miles, and I did my best to hang on. I was able to do so for a bit, but on a short, steep climb about 2 miles from the finish, I "started going backwards." The remainder of the pack rode away from me, so I did my best to maintain my position until the finish.
I crossed the line about 1h 35m after the start, but had to wait until tonight to find my placing. Given the size of the pack I saw ride off in front of me during that steep climb, I figured I came in around 35th or so. So I was excited tonight to see the official result: 25th place out of 100+ starters and 76 finishers. (I was initially 24th, but apparently after some review, the race officials revised the finish order somewhere.) I'm very pleased with the result give the demands of the course and my newbie status. (I'm also pleased that I was able to find my bike computer... I rode the course after my race scouring the shoulder of the road, and was able to find it!