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New England Crit Week

by Mike Benson • September 14, 2018

One of the things I really look forward to now, in the spring, is criterium racing. This year, the stars aligned with my schedule. I was able to get to the Gran Prix of Beverly and the Longsjo classic. As a bonus, I continued the following weekend at the Shoe City criterium. These races are the highlight of New England criterium racing. Not only are they in historic criterium racing cities, but they draw crowds and lots of talent from the region.

My first stop was Beverly to race with the 4/5's. This race is unique in that it happens in the evening during the mid-week. The race course is fairly short (.68 miles), fast and very technical. We did 26 laps at an avg speed of 25.71 mph. I call this course technical because of the ninety-degree corners which have you guessing each lap on which line will be the fastest so that you can carry as much speed through each exit of each corner. The other tricky thing this evening was that it had been raining all day. Thankfully the gods were listening, and the rain stopped 20 minutes prior to my race. This enabled the roads to drain a bit. I dropped my tire pressure in my Schwalbe Pro-Ones to 80 PSI. Unfortunately, the freshly painted lines on the roads were super slippery all race. In fact, during the first third of the race, on successive laps, the race leaders both crashed on the first 90-degree hairpin corner after hitting slippery paint. Fast forward to the middle part of the race and things really started to hammer on every corner. Before I knew it, I was in the lead group of about 10 guys and we were flying. Every single corner (there were 4) was a sprint for at least 20 seconds. This process continued to leave riders struggling to hang on. I was trying to follow the guys that I had marked at the beginning of the race. One of them won this race the previous year. With one lap to go, I made my move to be in the front of the lead group. As we neared the last corner before the final sprint into the town center, I could hear the announcer scream that the lead group was about the catch and lap the remaining racers that had not been pulled from the race. I was third wheel. Much to my chagrin, that group of racers we were going to catch crashed on the final corner. One of the racers hooked his bars on the barriers and brought 3 guys down right in the middle of the final corner. Race officials slowed us down as we cruised around the crash. Crap!! As I looked around, guys were sprinting. My position was compromised, and I cruised into 6th place. While I thought we would be neutralized, leading to one more lap, we were just the 4/5 race and there were many more races that needed to start on time.

The upcoming weekend was the Longsjo classic in downtown Fitchburg on Sunday. I could not make the Saturday race in Leominster (next year). Temperatures soared in the high 90's. This is when I learned what an ice sock was (basically panty hose that you fill with ice and stick down your back before the start of the race). Frankie Andreu was calling the race today from the finish line booth. As I was warming up on side roads, I could hear my daughter on the loud speaker yelling 'one to go' and ringing the bell. Apparently, Frankie grabbed her from the crowd and asked her to do it which was awesome! I signed up for the category 3/4 race which I knew would be harder than the previous 4/5 race. The good news with the 3/4 race is that everyone, for the most part, knew how to race their bike. To me, this means that racers know how to hold their lines in a safe manner during fast corners. Sometimes the 4/5 races can be much less organized, strung out, and hectic with people looking back and not focusing forward. This is when crashes occur. My goal for this race was to learn how to move back and forth through the pack, try to save energy, take a couple pulls, not get dropped, and try to get a top third result. This course was interesting in that we raced uphill (long drag) into town and then flew downhill towards two fast turns before heading back towards the town green. The backside of the course had terrible roads. There were ruts and cracks everywhere. In fact, the sides of the roads had some drain covers that were sunk into the road. If you were forced too far right, you pretty much had to bunny hop the sewer drain. During the mid-race, one guy just to my right was caught in one of these holes and crashed epically (thankfully he was okay, but his bike was broken). Okay, now I knew where I needed to be on each lap to stay safe. Unfortunately, with 3 to go, my nerves were tested when a racer pushed me into the guy to my left. I hit my brakes and almost went down. With two to go, everyone was working their way to the front. It was mayhem. On the last turn before heading up towards the finish, I exited the corner smoothly and pushed my way through a shattered front group as many of the younger Jam Fund riders left everyone behind at the finish. I had nothing left in the tank as I sprinted for 19th/80. Our race was 19.74 miles with an average speed of 26mph.

On Sunday June 8th, the last road race of the year for me would be the Shoe City Pro Circuit Criterium. The race was set in downtown Haverhill, MA. Having lived 30 minutes from here for half my life, this was my first time to this beautiful city which is set right along the Merrimack river. There are great restaurants, pubs, breweries, and historic buildings everywhere. The best place to park and stage here was a parking garage about 2 blocks down from the start. The nice thing about the garage is that you could stay out of the sun in the cool shade during pre and post-race preparation. Being the first race of the day enabled our 4/5 group to warm up doing hot laps on the race course. The course had 5 distinct corners. Because I knew this race would heat up quickly, I stayed right near the front from the beginning. When things did heat up (lots of attacks by the younglings), I was able to keep with the initial front pack of about 15 guys before the race split into 3 distinct groups. We were flying around the course and with 2 to go, the first crash happened which piled up about 8 guys. I hit the gas and didn't look back. I was trying to follow the wheel of a strong PVC guy, who after talking with him after the race thought there was only 1 to go. I didn't want to blow up chasing him, so I sat back about 50 -75 meters with another chap who was also hammering. When we hit the final straight, I lost his wheel but was able to hold on for 3rd/65. I needed to throw my bike at the finish line because I didn't realize there was another racer bearing down so quickly on my wheel. I beat him by a half wheel. This was my fault because I didn't sprint through the line. Very happy with this result and certainly looking forward to next spring for exciting criterium racing. Our race was 17 miles with an average speed of 26 mph.

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