Off the Back – The New Road Racing Adventures of 43 Year Old Mom

Introductory bike racing for women
Kelly McPherson crosses the finish line in her first criterium at the Rocky
Mountain Raceways. Photo by James McPherson.

By Kelly McPherson

As I stood with my bike at the start of the Rocky Mountain Raceways Criterium in West Valley City (RMR Crit) on Saturday, the thought came to me that this may be the craziest thing that I have ever done. I felt nauseous and like I might have a heart attack all at the same time. What was I thinking? A crit? Really? Those are only for serious cyclists, not for overweight, 43 year old moms. Do I look like I belong here? Probably not, but I am here, so I might as well give this a try.

I am a cyclist, though. I ride quite a bit. I just don’t ride fast. I have ridden in countless triathlons and centuries. I can finish. I just don’t finish quickly. I decided last year that I wanted to work on my speed and that the best way to do that would be to ride with faster people. Where are the fastest riders in the area riding? At the RMR Crits, of course. A weekly speed work session might be exactly what I needed.

I started doing research on what crits are. I scoured the internet and looked for books and magazines on the subject. There is a disturbing lack of information out there on what a crit, or criterium, is and what the rules are. There are volumes and volumes on triathlon, the rules, the etiquette, the best ways to get started and anything else you might want to know. Why is there almost nothing about crits? This was very frustrating. It would really be helpful if directors would put a little section on their websites with basic information for beginners. Somehow we are all just supposed to “know?”

Frustrated, I decided that the best way to find out about crits was to just go and watch them. For couple of Saturdays and then a few Tuesdays, I pedaled my bike to the Rocky Mountain Raceway (RMR) and stood on the sidelines to watch the crits. I learned quite a bit. I learned that it is all about the teams and wearing team gear. There is competition between the teams as well as the individuals and racers ride together in ways that support each other. I learned that most of them will take all unnecessary items off of their bikes. One water bottle, not two. A second bottle is usually left to the side for use after the race. I didn’t see many seat packs and absolutely none of the bentos that are common in century riding. Even reflectors and lights are left to the side of the track or at home. This was helpful information. Heaven forbid I would show up to my first race wearing my Tour de Donut t-shirt sporting a bento full of fig newtons!

The race itself is fairly simple. Riders start in a pack according to their level. Riders in the A flite are FAST and usually consist of Cat 1,2, and 3 cyclists. The B flite is Cat 3 and 4 cyclists. C and D flite are for Cat 4 and 5 cyclists and newbies. Then there is the Masters flite for those over 35. Most of the time the flites start out relatively slowly and then settle into an even pace. Attacks are made on the corners or whenever a rider or team of riders feels like they can break away and get ahead. The riders ride around and around the track for a specified amount of time. A loud bell is rung when the group is on the last lap. Everyone finishes on the same lap. If you fall off the back and get lapped by your group, the lead pack may ride 10 laps, but you may only ride 9.

Plan 7 Coaching was offering a crit clinic series on RMR Crit days after the A/B flites finished their races. I quickly signed up and paid for the whole clinic series. That is exactly what I needed! It was a fantastic series of bike skills clinics designed to help newbies learn how to ride together in a pack without taking anyone else out. Even if a rider never wants to race a crit, I would strongly recommend going to this clinic. I got numerous comments all summer on my cornering skills from other envious riders.

I ended up having to have some major surgery which took me out of cycling until mid-July and so I never actually got to use my new skills or what I had learned last year. This year, having fully recovered, I once again set the goal of getting faster. Time to race a crit? Maybe? The whole idea really, really scared me.

In a moment of strength, I signed up and paid for a plate. What’s a plate? That is that little plastic number that you see on the back of some riders’ bikes. It means that they are racing the crit series which consists of crits on Tuesday nights and Hill Climbs alternating with Time Trials on Thursday nights. It means that they are earning points in the series and it also means that they only pay $10 per race rather than $15 that non-plate holder has to pay. I figured that if I paid for a plate, I would be committed to racing. As my husband quickly noted, I would need to do at least 14 races in order to make it worth it to be a plate holder and get the lower rate. Fourteen races? Yikes! Gulp! Ok, I am committed. I bought a plate in the Masters flite. I am 43. Maybe the other master riders will be old and slow like me?

The day of my first race came and I busied myself getting my bike ready. A clean bike is a fast bike, right? I tried not to think about what I was going to do later. It made me nauseous and I thought I might chicken out. I took everything off of my bike except for my Garmin and one water bottle. I packed a bag with tire changing supplies to have on the side. There are lots of goat heads at RMR and flats are frequent. I don’t have a team kit, but I did find an old event jersey that I thought might not stand out too much. At the last minute, I decided that I really wanted my own cheering section and so asked my husband and the three of my kids who are still at home to come. I have two more who are at college and on a mission in Italy.

We got to Rocky Mountain Raceway about 30 minutes before my flite was supposed to go. I warmed up a little and then just stood with my bike on the side and watched and listened to the other cyclists. The teams were starting to group up, flats were being changed and last minute preparations were being made. I saw several eating bananas. I don’t think that I could have gotten one of those to stay down even if I had been hungry. At the appointed time, we all crowded around the starting line and were given some brief instructions. Then we were off!

Did you know that riders in the Masters flite are NOT slow? They may be older, but they are definitely NOT slow! Wow! I think I may have been better in the D flite. I did manage to hold onto the group a lot longer than I anticipated. I figured that I would last about 30 seconds. I lasted almost 90! Yeah! It may seem scary to ride in a pack, but it is also much easier as the group breaks the wind resistance for each other. Without that, I knew that I was going to get further and further behind. Once dropped, it is almost impossible to catch back onto the group.

I had to decide what I was going to do. Was 90 seconds of speed work all that I was going to do today? No one would really notice if I kept my intensity low and just rode around in a circle for 45 minutes. Heck no! I went deep within myself and focused on turning those pedals with as much power and speed as I could muster. I knew that I had seriously fallen off the back of the group, but I was still racing and I was going to race as hard as I could. My husband stationed himself at the finish line and took pictures of me as I fought past. My children were playing in the bleachers and hollered at me each time I rode by. A friend of mine was there taking pictures of her husband and took a few of me as well and cheered me as I went by. I got lapped by the C/D flite, but they offered words of encouragement as they flew past. I kept working as hard as I could.

Finally, someone rang the bell signaling that I was on my final lap. I pushed extra hard anxious to leave every bit of energy I had out on that track. I wanted this to be the best effort that I was capable of giving. It was.

As I rode to cool down and then to my van, I smiled knowing that I had done my best. I had raced as hard as I could. I am not as fast as the others, but if I keep trying, I might hang on to the group longer each time before I get dropped. Do overweight, 43 year old moms belong racing crits? As long as they work hard and stay out of the way of the other riders when they are dropped, absolutely! I think I am going to have a lot of fun and learn a lot as I ride at least 14 more crits this year. See you all next week!

 

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