Air Force Academy Criterium
put on by the air force academy and usa cycling
3 out 5 fellow cyclists sacrificed in the name of keeping up
Note: A criterium is a type of road bike race that takes place on short, looped courses. Everyone goes around and around in a fast, tense pack for a set number of laps. First person across the line after the final lap wins. There’s rarely a pause in the action, and it usually induces a nervous euphoria in the racers as they battle lactate levels and each other.
Ten minutes in, I considered giving up. Bike racing is uncomfortable, and the bevy of warning lights on my proverbial dashboard was alarming. Speed is paramount, obviously, and composure begets speed. Racing from the back of the pack inflicts not only the ‘accordion effect,’ (as the group stretches and morphs through corners, the back half of the accordion is subject to violent changes in speed just to stay attached to the front half) but also the harpies. Harpies live in your head and screech things about getting to the front and sprinting out of corners and tossing away all that heavy water in your 8oz bottle. The mental clamor destroys composure, and sabotages your legs’ best efforts. Whatever measure of calm I’d once had evaporated as I rolled along in approximately fiftieth place.
The air force academy criterium is held on some roads surrounding the air force academy hospital, with westward ribbed minimountains and the turbulent atmosphere of a military base post-9/11. The course is basically a square, except with one corner elongated into a u-turn and a few squiggles added to the sides. Roughly, the first half of a lap is uphill, and the second half down. It’s narrow and technical, with a fast, downhill, frightening, righthand turn just before the 100 meters of uphill straight to the finish. A typical crit course, if by typical you mean ‘hard,’ ‘narrow,’ and ‘scary.’
As we milled around before the start, a group of fifty fiddling with arm warmers, shoe dials, and helmet straps, a guy who happened to have the same bike as me sidled up and remarked that we should race together, “you know, since we’re twins.” I smiled and immediately resolved to finish in front of my twin no matter what. I could happily be the second to last so long as he was the caboose.
At the whistle there was much general fumbling to marry shoes and pedals before the pack lurched away from the line. I could hear everyone else’s breathing shift up in sync with mine as we accelerated. In the melee approaching the u for the first time, one guy pulled his right foot out of his pedal, nearly kicked a neighbor with the jailbroken foot, jigged left wildly, came a hairsbreadth from falling, then somehow pulled his butt and saddle together in a spectacular save. Everyone around him, including me, thanked the law of gravity for this act of mercy. Even so, it was a bad omen and my heart hummingbirded for the next couple minutes.
The first few laps are always a fight. Fighting for position, fighting to establish a rhythm, fighting for breath, fighting to come to grips with the supercharged awareness born out of speed and anxiety. People who race road bikes are known to be an uptight, unfriendly bunch, and for good reason. The chaos of racing stamps sartre’s maxim on your bones: hell is other people, close to you, moving quickly. It goes double for early season racing like the afa crit when winter hibernation still lingers and the fizz getting dumped on your synapses is too much to handle.
At one point, a guy with a trim mustache rode up to someone next to me and started berating them. It seemed that the nonmustachioed gentleman had illegally gone around some cones the previous lap and the mustache decided he had a beef. This kind of thing happens in every race. There are always cones for demarcation, and they are always ignored. Respecting the cones takes a backseat to priorities like smoother cornering lines or moving up a few positions or generally having your way with the road. And, because everyone’s edgy, there are always arguments. Every single crit I’ve ever done has had a multisided shouting match. This time followed the script to a tee: mustache starts yelling at nonmustache for going around the cones, nonmustache responds aggressively by questioning both the cones’ ontological importance and his attacker’s manhood, and a few onlookers jump in to tell both of them to shut it. For my part, I cheerfully took in the sound of notmyproblem and kept my gaze forward. The pitch of the debate whined upward before coming to an abrupt halt when the two combatants came together and managed to crash each other. Idiots, we all thought.
There was no ease halfway through the race. Normally the middle portion is a time to breathe and take stock, but a few teams threw riders at the wall to keep the pace high. Such a narrow course kept the thing zero-sum: the only opportunity to move up was when someone ahead dropped out. I remained at the back of the front group, wondering if it’s possible to expel carbon dioxide through your eyeballs because it certainly felt like it, and watched people fall off in twos and threes. The bike and I were cooperating well, zigzagging through the squiggles and railing the scary righthander at mach 2. It was time to employ some racecraft.
The wind is the ultimate deity of racing. It responds unpredictably to prayers and, like the gods scheming above troy, offers no explanation for its alliance or betrayal. A penitent racer can only hope to be spared, usually by driving others into its maw. Racing is the art of exploitation, and there are times when you have to spur those around you to kill themselves for your benefit. Accordingly, as gaps opened, I always allowed someone to come around me and then parked on their rear wheel. In their haste to plug the gaps, to keep up, they towed me right along as I exhorted them to give everything. “You got it! C’mon man, it’s all you, you got this!” They’d dash themselves to pieces on the wind. The startfinish straight was particularly deadly - the wind was a canon. I huddled behind braver riders as we passed the line, silently willing them to give it their all. Lap after lap, one poor soul after another towed me through the splintering group. I didn’t feel guilty, only the ruthless pleasure of an unpleasant task done well.
Cowardice only goes so far, however. Eventually, circumstances will out and you’re forced to account for yourself. The final lap came, and fifteen wheels back was no place to be. I hung my own ragged snout out into the wind and gunned it up the straight, shuttling past a few folks as we all scrambled for position. My twin was long gone. The u turn and the squiggles came and went and all I managed was one or two more measly places. At the downhill I was ten people back and fully out of contention. Everyone sailed through the righthander at speed, leaving no chance to pass, and we all sprinted our hearts and lungs out. My dishonorable tactics won me eleventh place and the dubious approval of the wind.