Yesterday I managed to survive my first outing with what is likely the fastest race/training group ride in the Lansing area: the Mason Tuesday Night Road Ride. I learned about the ride last year, and I have ridden with a few of the regulars there on other occasions, but this would be my first go at it.
At 40 miles with 6 sprint points, the ride is billed as a "disciplined and well choreographed race training ride that emphasizes high average speeds and race finishing skills." And so it was. As a first-timer, I had a sense of the route. I'd seen the map ahead of time, but I didn't know where the sprint points were. I also didn't know the ride dynamics. Would we see a break go off the front right away? Would they roll out easy and then at some spot in the road that the regulars sense, ramp it up? More the latter than the former, I can now report. As for me, I was left to hang on and try to learn at the same pace we were riding. Turns out that my brain - and my eyes - aren't as fast as my legs just yet. But that's to be expected. I set out to learn something, and those boys took me to school. Luckily the ride regroups after each sprint and the guys were generous and willing to help out a rookie with advice. So it wasn't just a beating, but a chance to really learn.
The Ride in Six Segments
I'll save you the suspense: I finished 2 of the 6 sprint segments with the group, and trailed the leaders (if not the whole ride) on 4 out of six including the first 2. Segment three and four were my best. I felt good, rode fast, stayed connected, and didn't get spit out the back. Each segment was a lesson. Usually it didn't hit home until after the fact just what I was supposed to learn. So here is my attempt to look back and take inventory.
Segment 1: Echelons are tricky
The first segment included our roll out, which proceeded at a conversational pace for a few miles. As we turned South, we had a tremendous cross-wind out of the East. Trying to be a good citizen, I pulled through on my first time in the double pace-line as the pace gradually ramped up. All the while I was getting advice from the ride leader and another racing veteran. Soon the pace was quite strong, and I would later understand that I spent too much time on the East side of the pack, in the crosswind. I'd never ridden in a true echelon before in race-like conditions. Our first acceleration point would be immediately following a left turn (East) into the wind and up a hill. Being new to the course, I didn't see any of these three things coming. Result: dropped. I failed to catch a wheel as we turned into the wind and found myself off the back. Luckily, a few others were caught out too due to the climb. I like to climb, so I dug deep and caught another rider. We worked together to get connected again, and the group didn't have to wait for us for more than a few seconds after the sprint.
Segment 2: So that's what an attack looks like...
What can I say? I let the train go by me as the attack started on segment two. Just watched as one wheel after the next came around. Did I grab one? No. In retrospect (like, 20 seconds after the fact), I saw that I didn't recognize that I was seeing an attack. What stands out in my mind is that a better way to recognize an attack is by sound. I heard the wheels and the derailleurs. Next time, I would be quicker to respond, I told myself. I dug in once more, got in the drops and came back to the group at the next rendezvous point.
Segment 3: A little better
The third leg was a bit odd as we rolled easily into the town of Leslie, MI in recovery mode. Good to know, I thought. Made the second segment's violent acceleration make much more sense. I was also starting to see that about 2-3k out from the sprint point is when I could expect the attacks to come. We had a relatively small group by this rides' standards (13 or 14), I am told, and I think this made it all the more imperative to go with the move when it came because there wouldn't be a second chance.
As we came through the town of Leslie, we made a left (North) and then a quick turn east to climb a twisting hill. I saw it a little sooner than before, but didn't know how deep to go (because it seemed early in the segment) and so I probably went a bit conservative. There was a short descent after, and I was able to use that to catch on to the group again without getting dropped. We were in the teeth of the East wind (unusual, btw, for our parts to have wind out of the East) when we hit another long but more gradual climb. The group got strung out and I once again got caught behind the move. But I wasn't alone this time. I worked with another rider and we managed to stay in contact.
Segment 4: I stay with the group
I was starting to get the hang of things. I was feeling humble, but not embarrassed, because up to that point I was feeling pretty strong physically. All my mistakes were made by my brain, and if anything I'd been bailed out a few times by my legs. The skies were beginning to get ominous, but the wind had subsided. Besides, we were on the backside of the forty mile loop and were making turns West. With the tailwind now. I put on my game face and resolved to pay attention to every move. I rode aggressively rather than reactively, trying to stay in the first 3-4 as the pace ramped up. We came through a tight and twisty wooded section, turned North, and were bombing along at a really fast pace. I had no idea where the sprint point was, but I was not focused on contesting the sprint. My goal was to keep a wheel in front of me until the group slowed down. Twice I found myself on the front pulling as a result of trying to give myself lots of chances to stay with the group. Short pulls. Everybody was going fast. As the sprint point approached, two riders came around and were quickly away. But I was in the next group. I even got to do the circle-back during the regroup. I ate a bit, drank a bit, and smiled a lot. I'd managed to see and cover all the accelerations this time.
Segment 5: Mechanical (Dis)advantage
I have a compact drivetrain on my bike. This would turn out to be a factor in the final fast segment of the ride. We were headed West into the town of Mason on what was for me a very familiar stretch of M-36. Two climbs on that route, one that I do pretty regularly myself. I rode it on Sunday, in fact. I knew the sprint point too - the Tasty Twist on the West side of Mason just over the town line. I figured the city limit sign would mark the finish. But I wouldn't get to find this out for sure.
As we climbed the first and steeper hill on M-36, I was mid-pack. But the leaders weren't coasting on the descent, which is fast even when you are freewheeling it. They all clicked into the biggest gears they had and spun down the hill. 40+ mph. I did the same, but topped out my compact gearing (50x13) and could only watch as the group pulled away on the downhill. I had hoped to catch them on the next climb, but there is nearly a mile of flat between the bottom of the first hill and the more gradual climb further West. Coming off the descent, it's possible to push a big gear all the way. I'd done it many times. I did it again last night, but so did the group. I wouldn't catch them until a couple miles later at the ice cream shop. Of all the puzzles to solve, this one will keep me guessing a bit for next time. I'm going to need some tactics to overcome my mechanical disadvantage on the downhill if I continue to ride the compact. I may need to break early up the hill...
Segment 6: Cooldown home
As we rode out of Mason, the ride turned conversational again. E-mails were exchanged. The guys congratulated me for having made the whole ride. I talked with a kid in MSU kit who was back after having graduated and moved to Detroit to work for Toyota. He let me know that my effort - making 2 out of the 6 sprints without getting dropped - wasn't bad for a first outing. I appreciated that. But I was even more happy to have learned so much so quickly. I know I have much, much more to learn. But I look forward to it. I know just a bit more about where to save and where to invest effort on this particular route. Let's hope I can remember it all next time!