Seth Davidson / Yuzuru Sunada
On the last day of the San Dimas Stage Race I hurried to the line. The ref read our last rites, blew the whistle, and off we went, careening through six turns, a modest incline, and a screaming downhill that dumped into a 90-degree turn onto the finishing stretch.
My goal was simple: earn another DNC crown to go with the string of them I’d won in every crit now since the Dana Point Grand Prix in 2008, when a lummox clipped one of the steel barriers on the left and started a pachinko cascade of bikes, wheels, screaming idiots, and soft-cartilageand-bone smearing along the pavement at 30 mph. “DNC,” by the way, stands for Did Not Crash.
Downtown San Dimas was an idyllic place to race. The start/finish was packed with spectators. The town was charming. The weather was perfect. Nothing could possibly go wrong, and in fact nothing did until the last turn on the last lap, when things not only went wrong, they went horribly wrong while slinging ass downhill at 40 mph some dude on the BonkBreaker team took the hard right hander a bit too hard and wound up splaying himself against the barricades, crashing out Steve Klasna in a great glorious finale of crunching, smashing, cursing, and opprobrium.
This of course is the price of trying to win bicycle races. You must take chances. Those chances will not always pan out. When they do not, you will pay with skin and gristle and purple scars that you can point to years later, grotesquely, as you pull up your pant cuff and itemize the scars to queasy-looking coworkers at the water cooler. This is generally a day or two prior to the time you get your termination notice, assuming you have a job, which of course as a self-respecting masters pro bike racer, you don’t.
You know you’re in trouble when the liberal arts major is calling you out for your bad math
I knew that by skulking in the rear, sitting up long before the sprint, and letting Troy Huerta madly dash by to beat me for 46th place, I would almost certainly earn another DNC crown, and I did. What caught me unawares was the announcement “One lap to go!” and the Pavlovian shark attack that ensued when they rang the bell lap.
It caught me by surprise because I checked my watch and noted that they had rung the bell at about 32 minutes into the race, meaning that we finished our 40-minute event in about 34 minutes. Nor was it the first time that a masters race had been shorted. In fact, it’s a tradition at virtually all SoCal crits to hear the bell lap five minutes shy, sometimes more, of the scheduled forty or forty-five minute race.
The rationale, of course, is that it’s better to end the race a few minutes early than a few minutes late — better for the promoter, that is. The inanity of a 35-minute crit for the 45+ racers (and incredibly, for the 35+ racers as well) was shown on the course itself. With a star-studded field of truly great racers, the peloton averaged over 28 mph for the entire race. The 35′s averaged over 29. In other words, it wasn’t a bike race. It was a drag race.
Forget tactics. The strongmen kept the foot on the gas for the entire time, ramped up a lead out train at the end, and awarded the spoils to the flat-out fastest guy in the field. In our race that was Bill Harris. In the 35′s it was Charon Smith.
And although those two guys can win any crit of any length, it greatly diminishes the racing element of the event when it’s set up to be so short that there isn’t even a mathematical possibility of a breakaway. Why not just make it two laps? Thirty-five minutes isn’t long enough to make a dent in the big engines, and it’s not long enough to create the pauses that lead to attacks, breakaways, and the thrill of, you know, tactical bike racing.
Don’t blame the promoters, they voted for McGovern
Of course the real illness is the proliferation of categories. Promoters only have a limited amount of time to close off downtown or to occupy an office park. Many crits have as many eleven categories, without even providing kiddy races or junior racing events. Dana Point in 2014 has thirteen events beginning at 7:50 … and no junior races, either. The Cat 5′s and the 30+ 4/5′s race an absurd — yes, absurd — twenty minutes.
The attraction of multiple categories for promoters is maximal entry fees. The attraction for the bicycle riders is the illusory hope of a trinket. The victim is the sporting event itself, where the spectators are virtually guaranteed to witness a mass gallop finish every single time. Is that fun to watch? Hell, yes! Who doesn’t want to watch Charon out-kick a hundred guys in the last 200 yards so that it looks like a greyhound racing a bunch of pet rocks?
But we don’t need to stand around baking our brains in the hot sun to watch an outcome that will be the same whether the race lasts forty minutes or four.
Also … don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. Unless it’s also raining.
When the flyer advertises a 40-minute or 50-minute race, then the promoter should run a race for the advertised length, the same as when a gas station advertises gas for 4.15 a gallon: it means a gallon, not 3.75 quarts.
If, because I’m old and slow, I only deserve forty minutes of competition, don’t short me on my lousy forty minutes unless you’re prepared to welcome me back to the registration table and refund my money. Five minutes hacked out of a 40-minute race is 12.5%, and for a $35 entry fee, that’s $4.37 that just got lifted out of my back pocket. In real terms, that’s half a six-pack of Racer 5 IPA.
Of course the simplest solution is the worst one. Make the races longer and decrease the number of events. Maybe the sport would be more exciting if my precious 50+ category and all the other sandbagger categories got axed, leaving us with longer, more exciting events for six or seven categories of genuinely fast people who had the legs to race a technical crit like San Dimas or Dana Point for an hour or more. Maybe lengthier, tougher courses would produce, better, tougher racers.
Or maybe not. Maybe without a 30+4/5, a 50+, or a 65+ category the sport would just dry up and blow away. You know, like it has in Europe.