Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Event: Bike Fest 2015 and the Wolfpack Hustle Short Line Crit 2015

Image courtesy of Downtown
Long Beach Associates
Imagine my surprise when I arrived home on Saturday after hanging out with West Brother to find that the streets right around my home closed off to traffic. There was a vague inkling of local retailers and restaurateurs mentioning that there was some event going on over the weekend, but no one had clearly indicated what that event was. And of course, the last few weeks had been so busy, I had not paid that much attention to the little posters popping up in the shop windows. Once I managed to make my way back to my parking space, it was time to go explore and find out what was going on.

As it would turn out, going on literally steps from my front door was the Long Beach Bike Fest, a celebration of all things two wheeled with vendors hawking their wares, local advocacy groups recruiting for members, and, of course, the obligatory biergarten to satisfy the thirst of the throngs of local cyclists who had come to attend. What was not expected, however, was the presence of a closed course race track on public streets. As a part of the Bike Fest, a square track had been cordoned off for the Wolfpack Hustle Short Line Criterium race. The race was open registration, meaning just about anyone with a bike that could pass inspection, could register to participate in any of the 4 races.

I fully admit that this is the first time I have ever seen a bike race up close. When living in Arlington, VA many years ago, I had seen streets closed off for several different criterium events, including one in the Crystal City neighborhood and another in the Clarendon neighborhood. When we actually lived in Washington, DC proper, we could see the annual cyclocross race that took place at the Armed Forces retirement home. However, in precisely none of these instances was I able to find time to actually stay and watch the race, so having one so close by made for a great chance to see local athletes compete.

In the late afternoon qualifying sessions were run in groups of about 20 riders and the top 85 from the qualifying would be eligible for a place in the finale that would be run later in the evening. Watching the qualifying was actually rather amusing as it was clear there was a drastic difference in the level of skill between the riders. Some elite athletes were clearly in the mix as even in the small qualifying groups there were rather large gaps between the breakaways and the rest of the group. Several of the vendors who were there selling products were also participating in the race and there were several clearly sponsored teams with matching bikes and kits along with a rather random mix of local groups and individuals.

Unlike most races, which take place during the day, the Wolfpack Hustle races have that extra element of racing in the dark, in line with the history of the organization, which started out by organizing evening group rides in the Greater LA area. So once the sun had set, we were able to grab a spot right near the start/finish line for the men's road bike finale. It seemed that the afternoon's qualifying session had not culled many entrants because the field was some 40 riders deep. Given the short course and varying levels of skill, my immediate thought was that this was going to turn into a serious clusterfuck if not managed correctly, but of course, that had already been considered. Riders who were lapped were systematically eliminated and had to exit the course at the designated pit area.

Finally, the race was about to begin and the final countdown started. Watching 40-odd riders leap off the line to try to jockey for position is pretty entertaining, especially when the first turn is only a matter of a few hundred feet after the start. Fortunately, it was a clean start and nobody crashed out on Lap 1. With several primes at stake, including one for the leader of the first lap, the riders were all gunning hard for each other. Within that first lap, however, it was obvious there were already going to be several riders that were going to get pulled and, sure enough before the lap ended, the first handful of casualties to the lapped rider rule were already being evacuated off the course.

As the riders raced on, every successive lap brought with it a smattering of lapped riders until by about Lap 10, when a very distinct breakaway of two seriously fast riders started putting massive distance between themselves and the peloton. Their gap grew with every lap, adding another second or so each time around. The rather large crowd that had gathered to watch the race was worked up into a frenzy as these two riders pulled each other, trading positions with every lap, and focused on widening their gap.

Halfway into the race, it had become clear that this was turning into a race for 3rd place. The peloton, which now consisted of maybe a dozen riders, had a solid battle going with riders jockeying for position. Of course, the smart riders are the ones who take advantage of the draft until the final few laps, so I was more intently watching those riders who were sitting in the middle of the pack, biding their time.

A couple more laps go by and the race leaders as still way out in front, growing their gap by about one second with every lap, when suddenly, a second pack starts to break away from the peloton. This group of three riders working together to try to make a push to close the gap on the two race leaders and perhaps make a run at the finish. They pushed furiously for several laps and actually managed to shave away a significant portion of the gap, cutting it almost in half, but the two race leaders were simply too strong and by the time there were only five laps to go, the second breakaway had melted back into the peloton, resulting in the final lap being a Herculean battle as the sprinters in the peloton made a last ditch effort to capture their place on the podium.

The race finish was extremely tight, with the two race leaders in a dead heat up until the last 100 feet, when one rider ran out of steam and the winner crossed the finish line, fists pumping in celebration. The crowd cheered loudly, but quickly drew back to a hum as the clock ticked by, waiting to find out who would claim the third spot on the podium.

10 seconds ticked by...
15 seconds ticked by...

Finally, after nearly 20 seconds, the final riders came into view. The peloton had stretched out significantly and a clear leader had made himself known. Legs furiously stomping on the pedals, bike rocking rhythmically in sync, the rider sprinted for the finish, capturing third place by a little more than a bike length. The crowd went wild as the final riders crossed the line and hearty cheers of congrats were heralded upon all of the riders, even those who would not be on the podium.

And that is the beauty of this sort of race. The Wolfpack Hustle is definitely about racing, but it is also about camaraderie and encouraging participation in a sport that has had its ups and down in the last decade. It is about getting even casual riders to come out and experience the thrill of competition and motivating them to explore the depths of their ability. It was such a thrill and inspiration to watch the race, that I promptly went out the next day and turned in my longest solo ride to date, willing myself to suffer through that extra bit just to prove that I could.

When the Short Line Crit returns to Long Beach next year, I hope to register as a racer and will see just how well my Orbea Orca and I can do.

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