Grant's Tomb Criterium
March 20, 2004

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Grant's Tomb
Joel in Columbia Blue for the day,
instead of the BVF yellow and grey polka-dots.

Race Report
by Joel Shapiro

JoelIndeed I raced Grant’s Tomb – the Men’s D collegiate race, riding for the Home Team, Columbia. We D’s were the last to go off, unlike most of the ECCC races, which usually end with the big spectacle of Men’s A (the 123 pros). What this meant was that most of the crowd would probably leave by the time we raced – which can be good or bad. It was late afternoon before the Men’s C finished and we were up next.

The sun which had been warming things up, started hiding behind the burgeoning clouds, bringing more frigid wind. I don’t like late starts – felt sluggish and cold. Since this was the Columbia Home race, no one thought to bring any trainers or rollers, so our team faced the humiliating situation of our big staging area being taken over by the UVM (Vermont) superteam and their huge cadre of trainers, rollers and other support equipment and people. At least we had a few cases of bottled water and some sandwiches squished into our once large, now usurped area.  In terms of points, Columbia was doing okay, but not great. Our great pro rider in Men’s A, Waclaw, the Polish Rocket who rides for Ideal Tile, ended up way out of the points as UVM and Darmouth continued to dominate. Our #2 guy, Brent from Alaska, at least got top 15. For some reason our entire Women’s team decided not to race, so that left Men’s B, in which our sole rider, Peter was outmatched, and Men’s C, which Last Year’s Men’s D Hero, Mike Ripka, sprinted to 3rd place.

So at 4pm on Saturday, the last race of Grant’s Tomb, Yours Truly, wearing Blue and White instead of the BVF polka dots, lined up at the front. I had tried to warm up a bit by sprinting up and down Riverside, but the cold wind took care of any muscles I might have heated. There was a field of about 40 guys, average age of 21. I turn 40 in 3 weeks.

In the other ECCC race I ran this year, Rutgers at Branch Brook, I blew up trying to chase down a break on the last lap, ending in 16th (out of 70). But Grant’s Tomb was more my kind of race, fast, technical and good for power, strength and sprint. I had three teammates with me, Eric – skinny, ambitious and experienced, but lacking in power, Dave
– his second race ever, just wanting to hang on, and Rich, who at least had taken 5th place at Penn State – small and quick and fit, but erratic as hell. Though Rich was fast, he didn’t have much power – so the last chance of winning Grant’s Tomb, our Home Race, for Columbia fell to my old, hairy shoulders. I was facing a big team from Boston U. who had guys in the top 10 in points, as well as a big team from Yale, some quick guys from Williams and Cornell and UVM, to name a few. We would race for about 15 laps with two Primes.

The whistle blew and we were off, but my new DMT sprinting shoes paired to those venerable SPD-R pedals gave me fits trying to clip in. By the time I had both feet secure, I’d lost position, and was towards the back, going into the first, fast turn. I soon found, however, that no one in the pack seemed to know the line around GT – I thought back to last year when I went out with the team at 5am the night before the race and practiced every corner – now it all came flooding back and I started picking off riders as they went wide or didn’t bother to pedal around the turn. By the downhill I was back in top 5,
and the 2 Boston guys started to pick it up. I easily held on, however, and as they got faster and faster and I sat on their wheel, I looked back and realized we were getting a gap. After another lap the gap grew pretty big, and I told them we’d better work together. But they didn’t listen, so one guy would pull for half a lap then the other guy would pull til he blew – I thought “fine, I’ll just sit in and get a free ride”.

But we were losing our gap, as they couldn’t maintain speed with their style of paceline. Then the bell chimed for a Prime lap, and I wanted it. They pulled all the way to the hill, then finally waved me through. I figured they wanted to ride my wheel, then sprint around me for the valuable 5 ECCC points. So I motored up the hill, then started turning on the gas, figuring I’d ride them off my wheel or out sprint them. I took off at my sprint point, crossed the finish alone, looked back and gasped. They hadn’t even got halfway up the hill and I had a huge gap on them and an even bigger one on the peloton.

Now, I could have tried to grab a flyer, but I still had 11 laps to go, and it was windy, and frankly, I didn’t want to work that hard. I wanted to sprint. I felt strong. It was then that I realized that I might actually WIN this thing. My confidence grew exponentially.

I sat up and waited for my red and black clad friends who came along towing another strong guy from Drexel who had bridged. We went around, but, before I could organize them, the group caught us. At least Rich was in front with me now, but Eric had crashed out, and Dave had an asthma attack. So 2 left from the Home Team.

There were multiple attacks from Yale, Cornell, Williams and the BU guys, but nothing that I couldn’t answer. In fact I’d never felt so strong in a race before –like I could do anything. For some reason I had way more power than the rest of the field – I could have easily gotten away at any time if I’d wanted to, but I was content with sitting near the front and hopefully winning a glamorous field sprint.

If I fell back at all, I simply pushed a little bit, cut the corners or pedaled around turn and I was back in place. I was in complete control. It was like, instead of using 90% of my power and having to dig in for any attack or to sprint as I usually do, I was using maybe 80% of my strength with at least 20+% way back in the reserve vault that I wasn’t going to have to open until the finish.

The laps were winding down. The skinny but fast Williams guy ran into my rear wheel - I held my place with my 195lbs, and he bounced away, crashing out. The Cornell guy blew his tire, and heading into the last lap it was the BU guys, Rich and Me. We had to pass some lapped riders and another Williams guy got by and a big Yale guy attacked, but I powered past them on the little hill, heading into the downhill sweeper, losing Little Rich on the way.

Just then the strong guy from Drexel attacked Hard. He even pedaled around the fast turn using the momentum to fly him up the hill to the finish. I got on his wheel, and I too pedaled around. I too am a strong guy, and I held on. He used his plentiful youthful energy to keep speeding upwards and I just tried to hold on without having to stand. I still had a lot of petrol left for a good sprint and I figured I’d need it with this guy, who’d been sitting in back all day, just waiting. His pace was so fast, we dropped the peloton halfway up the hill to the finish.

Now it was just Him and Me. First or Second place. But this was textbook – he was bound to falter – The Tomb has a way of sapping you on this hill, and many people start their sprint too early (I was warned before the race). I just needed to wait for the right moment - for a sign that he was slowing – and sure enough, with about 150 meters to go he looks back, not knowing I was there, thinking he’d dropped everyone with that pace of his.

To his complete horror he sees me on his wheel – and though it was just an instant, I saw his look of Sheer Panic. He turned around, stood up, frazzled, and tried to squeeze some more power out of his young legs in a frantic sprint. But, as Coach Kirk would say, he already had used up his bullet, and I still had one left in the chamber, and Bang, I fired. I jumped, shot around him in 3 or 4 strokes and Turned it ON. Put my head down, blocked out the cheers, and with an eerie silence in my head concentrated on looking only for that silver line of duct tape which would mark the end of the last race of the 2004 Grant’s Tomb, and my first victory ever on a road bike. I kept accelerating, pushing my stiff Crown Jewel harder and harder. It seemed as if in slow motion – so in my mind it took a very long time – but there it was. That line of tape. Faster I burned until I crossed it, instinctively looking peripherally to see if anyone else was coming around me. No.

Yes, I’d won. By almost 3 bike lengths I was to find out. The rest of the group was way back. It was my day, finally. Columbia had indeed won a race on their home turf today. And as I pedaled around my victory lap, I thought to myself that, I may never win another race in my life – we all know how damn hard this sport is - but on one blustery spring day in New York I was King of the Hill. And you know what? It felt great.

PS – of course I then had nothing left for the Prospect Park race on Sunday. Maybe it was my low carb diet or lack of recovery, but when the fast guys attacked on the hill with 2 to go I couldn’t follow, getting dropped out in the wind, ending up 10th for the 3rd time this year – proving that I was indeed a mere mortal after all.

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