The New Britain Criterium was a mainstay of my cycling youth. Starting in 1986, I raced the typically cold, wet spring series there nearly every year and, then, the official race in the July heat. The photo above is from around 1988, when a junior race would have a full field and riders like George Hincapie and Charlie Issendorf would make the trek up from New York City to race the lumpy kidney of a course in Walnut Hill Park. The last time I did this race was in 1995 or 1996 — I no longer recall — and I rode 25-30 miles each way to the race.
So perhaps I was feeling nostalgic when I signed up for the 2014 edition.
It took less than a lap for those remembrances to evaporate.
That’s because the pack bunched up where the course tapered on the right hand side and, next thing, guys were on the ground and riders were flipping over them. I could see myself going down, too, and thought, “I didn’t sign up for this.”
But I was finding a path through the carnage, threading a clean line as things moved in slow motion, until the rider on my left got in and under my arm, tangling his bars with mine. I shrugged him off and sent the poor bastard to the tarmac.
If there’s one thing racing a bike for 28 years teaches you, it’s pavement is hard and you don’t lay it down unless you’ve exhausted every option.
The chase back onto the tail end of the peloton nearly cracked me. I guess I could have taken the free lap…
I was nervous from then on. The race settled into a choppy rhythm on a tricky course. There are no real corners, per se, in Walnut Hill Park. Just wide sweeping turns. And on this day, there was a stiff, gusty crosswind and too many riders who didn’t know how to ride those conditions. Riders slamming doors shut and pushing each other off the course. Riders hopping curbs and riding the grass to move up a spot or two. Riders letting gaps open up in front of themselves, then driving the chase into the gutter because they didn’t know any better. Riders attacking balls out off the front, only to blow up after 10 seconds, and drop like an anchor through the middle of the pack.
It was the no-holds-barred ghetto-style racing from New York City races and racers. I realized I didn’t miss it. There was a reason I was picking only the higher-level pro-am races to enter, even though I barely stood a chance in them. I felt far more comfortable in a fast race with riders who followed the etiquette and rode smartly, even if it meant I might not see the finish line.
I suddenly felt old and wise, which only made me more anxious because I didn’t have the power to ride away from the more erratic riders. I didn’t have the timing to make the breakaway or the strength to bridge up to it. So I spent the better part of the race bumping elbows and crossing wheels, and dodging the odd foul ball from the baseball game that landed right in the middle of the pack, right in front of me.
I was feeling the efforts with 5 laps to go. The sun had come through the cloud cover and I was feeling the heat. My left hamstring was getting tight. I held my place toward the front, just to keep safe. There was no need to partake in the field sprint, not when all the paid places were up the road. So I sat up coming through the last corner, stayed clear and watched the young schmuck who won the sprint for 15th place throw his arms up in a victory salute. Back in the day, you would have been disqualified for a move like that.
I know because I was that dumb kid once and pulled the same move.
After the race, I spun out along Shuttle Meadow Reservoir. I had ridden this route many times with my Richard Sachs’ teammate, Jimmy. The wind was up again, and blowing across the water, the sun scintillating on the choppy surface. I was happy to have survived the race without injury. Happy to be cruising past Rogers Orchards — closed for the season. Happy for so many memories.
And happy for the simple pleasure of the bike.