Submitted by Hank Pfeifle
The Sterling (MA) Road Race was held Sunday and OA/Cyclemania fielded teams in both the 35+ and 45+ categories. In the 35+ field were Thomas, Buterbaugh, Meerse, Edwards & Lynch. In the 45+ were Fisher, Pfeifle, Woodhouse, Stevens & Fitch. The race is 6 times around an 8 mile circuit. There is a hill at the beginning of the circuit (much like the initial hill on Blackstrap with a steep beginning and a long big ring following grade), a two mile narrow road descent and then a big road ride to the end. The defining feature of the course & race is the finish. The big road funnels down on a gradual climb as it comes into the town of Sterling. In Sterling the road abruptly (acute angle) turns right and kicks up a steep (15%?) 200 meter hill to the finish line. Being at the front and in the right gear is critical to finishing success. But before we get to the finish, let me explain a few things.
Sterling is probably one of the hardest races to win on the New England circuit for a number of reasons. First, the fields are always big (100 starters) and stacked with talent. Second, the course is hard but not hard enough to shatter the field. Third, the finish is very technical and dicey to manipulate. Even with all the difficulty, every year there is a winner, and there are a number of ways to be that guy! As many of you have noted, bike racing can be frustrating because many times the seemingly obscure people seem to win. Well, no, they are not obscure, they are crafty and work the sport perfectly. A big time skill. Our race in the 45+ field demonstrated two winning moves that were executed to perfection. Also, the winning moves were set up well in advance and were definitely planned.
WINNING MOVE #1: Everyone knows that with a field of 100 and with a somewhat hilly course, the goal is to whittle the field down to a more manageable number. They way to do that is to pound the hill every time and work to shed guys off the back. After the fourth or fifth time up the hill, this almost always brings results, and sure enough, the final field was reduced to about 50. But if whittling the field from 100 to 50 is good, whittling it to 5 or 6 is even better. The guys at the front are always trying to break the chain by attacking and hoping only a handful can make the break. Repeated attacks add up and people wear out. Many times this tactic works and if you look at the results of all the fields, you will see that a number of breaks stuck. Now a phenomenon that a savvy rider understands is that when a break is attempted and then caught, it often results in the field slowing down to recover and see what’s going on. The savvy riders anticipates this and rolls off the front or attacks hard off the front. The hope is that people are looking back to see who collected back on, or people are tired and looking for someone else to spring and reel in the solo attacker. In either case, the hope is that there is collective inertia within the pack and that one can instantly put distance on the field. Well, at the top of the hill after lap 4 that’s exactly what happened and Thomas Francis soloed away from the field. Good anticipation, good execution and good strength to stay away.
WINNING MOVE #2: when we realized we were not going to catch Thomas Francis, we settled in to racing for 2nd place and we knew it would come down to a 50 man field sprint thru the corner and up the hill. I would have to say that OA/Cyclemania did a good job of positioning ourselves for a successful conclusion. The trick is to string the field out so there is not a mad rush into the corner by 50 guys all at once. Jeff Fisher sacrificed himself by going to the front and keeping a high pace into town. The field was strung out and I managed to get in 6th place behind him and Neil was about 8th. Perfect. Jeff pulled to about 50 yards from the corner. That was the time to attack hard and get a clean shot at the corner and sprint up the hill. But no, wait for an even more perfect shot and, of course that instant of hesitation opened the door for 3 lines to form going into the corner. The leading line going for the clean center of the corner, and inside line determined to contend with the pothole infested inside corner and the hard charging outside line taking the longer outside route. As you can imagine it gets chaotic and routes get pinched and add-libbing becomes required as people swarm all over the place from all directions. The guy who wins from this situation is a) somewhat rested, b) is comfortable bumping elbows and c) has a great sprint. Who always manages to have all that? Paul Curley. How did he stay “somewhat rested”? He was always at the front but never ON the front (I call this “riding small” – being at the front but no one noticing that you are even there – hence obscure). He took no pulls and was always in someone’s draft. He was in good position because he is comfortable in the pack and enjoys mixing it up at the front in dicey conditions. Many people back out of those spots. Lastly, he has a great jump, nimble bike handling skills and has practiced being in the right gear by testing things on previous trips up the hill. So, yeah, allot of guys possess those skills but Paul routinely seems to come out on top. Luck? No – thorough planning and excellent execution.
So, kudos to Thomas and Paul. I managed to weave my way to 13th, Neil 21st, Jeff 41st. Graydon ran into trouble on lap 4 (not sure what) and Kevin got caught up in an unfortunate crash (he’s ok, but bike needs some work – ouch$$!).
Winning a bike race is hard, but those who do win plan their winning moves well in advance.