By Chris Gottwald, Team OAM Now Cyclist
Want to know what it’s really like to race a Criterium at the Pro / Cat I level? You might be surprised!
After 24 years of racing in the elite ranks, one of the most popular questions is what is like to perform at this level? The reality is that there are several different types of riders, each one with a different experience. One of the more amusing parts of my career is that I am a very different breed and, as such, I have to ride a very different type of race than other riders.
First off, I am small. How small? About 135 lbs on a HEAVY day and about 5’9” tall… all of it legs (34” inseam). I am often mistaken as a female ballet dancer rather than a World Record holding bicycle racer. Some of my nick names include: half pint, spider, and man-child. Ironically though, it makes me fast, even more so when the course points upward. In the typical American-style Criterium race though, I just plain old suffer like a dog.
Take for example last season, at the Gaslight Criterium, I got another huge piece of humble pie. My great friends, and team mates, Cory Stange (who came in 1st in the Michigan Race Series) finished 6th and Dan Yankus finished close behind at 8th. As for me? I was 23rd. For the typical spectator, I am sure my performance looked average. The truth is though my average power was the highest I had seen in quite some time while racing: 257 Watts for 90 minutes. Truth be told, I can produce a little over 270 watts for 90 minutes thanks to the phenomenal coaching of Mark Olson, however, remember: 135 lbs. and 5’9”.
Here’s what it feels like:
Every time we headed up the home stretch, and around the back stretch, most guys easily accelerated to over 30MPH using their huge legs, that look more like they belong on a draft horse. My only option is to dig deep, producing over 500 watts 2 times a lap for 90 minutes. Once the pace settles, I try to rest a little, but since speed is a function of power I don’t really get much. I suffer to accelerate like the bigger guys. The headwind on the back stretch and the tail wind on the front stretch gave the bigger guys the advantage too! I had to wonder if I’d ever get a break?
Typically, my power ranks right up there to stay in a race. If I look at my power delivery over a race there are amazing highs and peaks. So, even though I’m using a lot more to create that power, a bigger guy using that same amount of power can’t cycle through those peaks as many times as I can. I can do more and I can recover. I can hang in a very long time. For example, at The Herman Miller Crit, 96 guys started on cobblestone, in the rain, and only 35-40 finished. It’s a tough race, but I can do that, which is surprising to many with my size. They all wanted to know how I do it.
If I have it my way, I’ll make the break, ride smart in the break, throw in a few efforts to wear the big guys down and maybe beat a few guys at the line. I try to minimize how many matches I burn making the race and pedal a little deeper in the turns. It’s all about trying to be efficient. I can corner pretty well to due to my size and flexibility. The eventual Gas Light Crit winner, David Williams, rode my kind of race. Smaller riders like us have to ride differently; we have to time things exactly right. His move was brilliantly timed. There was a group of riders ahead of me, who didn’t have much of a lead, and I thought I’d wait to see what happened. I didn’t see either of the Williams brothers around, so I pulled hard to join the group. When I finally pulled out in front of them, Dave Williams came from behind to counter and I was spent. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to do anything. I made the early mistake by putting in a herculean effort, only to find both Williams brothers on my wheel. When they countered I had simply dug too deep and could not answer the call. It was a huge mistake. Never ever put in an effort so tough that you cannot go with the counter, because that’s when the break goes and it did.
The Gas Light had a happy ending though. The men’s elite team really clicked last year. We all know each other like brothers and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Dan and Cory both knew that was about all I had for the moment and smartly covered the move. A big thanks to both of them!
In closing what’s it like to race at this level? Quite a blessing! It’s unimaginable to most and just plain crazy to others. To me, it’s the way I roll and what I feel called to do. There is no sign of me slowing down any time soon. I simply love to race. As for another pack finish at Gas Light…I learned another lesson. Hope to see you out on the road soon. Thanks for reading!