Racing Tulsa Tough
By John Abate
It’s 5:20 AM as I tip toe into the kitchen, dim on the lights and begin my day. Quiet just enough now, so as to not wake up the two snoring dachshunds piled on top of each another inside their crates. Sure wish I could catch up on more sleep after a long week of training and racing.
Immediately on the launch pad is a fresh pot of coffee steaming and gurgling to life and I’m cooking the usual breakfast of whole what and blueberry pancakes.
Sitting at my kitchen counter, hovered over a short stack and a hot cup of coffee now, a pang of excitement rushes over me, as I’m about to catch a 9 am flight to Tulsa, Oklahoma!
It’s almost one year to the day that I was in Tulsa racing the St. Francis Tulsa Tough bike race. In 2011, while I was riding with the San Diego based SKLZ/Pista Palace team, we tackled three days of intense bike racing together. There’s a reason for the moniker of “Tough” in this race and Tulsa Tough does not disappoint. These truly are three thrilling days of bike racing in the hot and humid Midwest. Last year I had no clue what I was getting myself into racing the Pro race in the rainy, humid, and hot conditions. However by the end of the three-day Omnium event, with all of the pain and suffering endured, I vowed to come back for the 2012 edition.
This year, I’m racing with a new team; the Monster Media p/b MRI racing team and we have a far better weather forecast in our future, which looks like clear skies throughout the weekend. A stark improvement over the rain and lightning storms last year.
On a personal level, today also marks an interesting and exciting point in time of my life. This is the first day in more years than I can remember that I do not officially have a job and an office to go to. A couple of weeks ago I resigned from my full time job after almost 12 years in the industry to take another opportunity working with a new company, within a new industry. Change is good and I can feel it!
This morning: no office chair waiting for my ass to drop down into it. No bond market updates from my i-calendar reminder. The email inbox went clear yesterday for the first time in years. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” read the last email … well, maybe not so much. These are exciting times and I have this light, easy feeling- an almost surreal sense of just being here in the moment while sitting over my breakfast.
I can go into a bike race for the first time in a few years without actually having a visual reminder of what my email inbox will look like on Monday morning. I won’t have to field the flurry of calls on the cell phone transferring through the airport and then to and from races or trying to huddle in the corner of the host house looking for the best possible cell reception, while trying to manage my client’s expectations. I have nothing to think about today and throughout the upcoming weekend except writing about my experiences and racing my bike.
Ok, Tulsa Tough, the race. There are three days of racing which is called an Omnium event. Each individual stage (day of race) is contested for and points are assigned to the top placing’s, usually 20 deep and an overall points classification will decide the Omnium winner. The races are all criteriums, which begin Friday evening with the Blue Dome Criterium; a technical eight corners in the downtown Blue Dome district of Tulsa. A scene of bars and restaurants line the course that will snake us through these twisty streets and speed us down the fast back stretch which once was a section of the original Route 66. We’ll zoom past the iconic Blue Dome building, once originally a Gulf Gas station, built in 1924. It served as an early day route for travelers, locals and anyone else looking to “get their kicks on Route 66”. Speaking of ‘kicks’, the crowd is out en masse; from a mixed bag of rowdy roughnecks- all beer’ed up waiting to see when we’ll crash to the avid cycling fan, racer, or family with kids in tow. This race would not be what it is without them – they define Tulsa Tough. Make no mistake about it; Tulsa is a town that takes their cycling very serious.
Saturday night is more of the same with eight corners and a long “false flat” hill section that leads into a fast straightaway descent funneling the racing pack down into a sweeping left hander, finally ending with a short straightaway punch to the finish line.
Finally, let’s not forget Sunday’s Riverview Criterium- home of the dreaded “Cry Baby Hill”. The race flyer promotes the stage as a “Criterium” however this is more similar to a circuit race. The real fun begins just after you leave the starting line with a punch you straight in your gut hill climb. Short enough to power up, steep enough to ride out of the saddle, and a narrow right hand corner that keeps you dancing on the pedals as Cry Baby keeps adding elevation until you stair step it’s finishing meters and reach it’s summit. Awaiting you there are about 5000 screaming fans lining the streets. More on this later.
Those are the stages and this is the race. NCC (National Criterium Calendar) ranked where the big boys come to play (pro continental teams) for big points towards the overall NCC standings. And of course big cash awards of up to $25,000 will keep the racing hot and heavy for the next three nights. The sight and sounds of these big races make for the excitement all weekend long, as race announcer Dave Towle, the voice of all NCC & NRC races, uses his characteristic Auctioneer style bellowing over the microphone his notorious, “One to go, one to go, one to go, one to go, one to gooooooooo!”
Waking up Friday morning in Tulsa, the skies are clear and bright blue with calm to light winds. It seems to be unseasonably cooler temperatures for June, somewhere in the mid 70’s. The Weather Gods are smiling, for now. Time to drain coffee and chow breakfast before meeting the guys for a bit more coffee and then an hour easy spin on the famous River Trail – a pristine paved bike path system that hugs the banks of the Arkansas River to the West and parallels the miles of greenbelt and parks to the East.
Friday night and it’s race time. The team van, tent and chairs are stationed on the finishing stretch of the race and our squad is getting prepared to do battle for tonight’s very short timed 50 minute crit. After we rolled around a bit for a warm up, we convened back under the tent to discuss our game plan. The synthesis of the plan was to set up our sprinters for a last lap sprint to the line. We would ride for a break if the timing and selections looked good, but racing here in the Midwest or anywhere far from home usually means that our competition is mostly unfamiliar. In other words, we don’t know ‘who’s – who’. Therefore, you could easily spend valuable efforts going in breaks that may not materialize into anything- so we decided to be diligent yet ride opportunistically so as not to miss a move if it looked promising.
We lined up just before 8 pm in the Category 1-2 race. Like a herd of cattle corralled into a pen, a full field of us racers stacked up to the starting line with over 125 riders in tonight’s race. The Monster Media p/b MRI Performance team is represented with six riders: Chris DeMarchi, Jamie Paolinetti, Phil Tintsman, Kayle Leo Grande, Randall Coxworth, and yours truly.
Ready, set, go! The team rolled off from the line at the front of the pack and we stayed there for the first 10 laps or so to ride our pace and be clear of any early carnage usually caused by race nerves or overzealous riders trying to establish an early breakaway. Technical criteriums during a big event like this can have this affect on a lot of riders, so it’s best to be safe up front and dictate the early pace and the lines through the corners. For the most part, the raced stayed together most of the night with only a few guys trying to split the field, but everything dangled and nothing stayed away too longed. I bridged to two or three moves throughout the night but I really never liked the combination or timing of them. Best to just keep things close and be represented just in case. Furthermore, I needed to save some matches for the lead-out; this thing was coming down to a field sprint, which was just fine by us!
Fast forward to 5 laps to go. I start to move up from about mid pack and I felt great having conserved enough energy to light another match just to get up into the top 5 or 6 position. The lap card shows 4 to go and I started to inch closer to my teammates who were setting a good tempo on the front. At three to go, I pulled through and with the excitement and nerves of the night flushing out my body and through my legs, I ramped up the speed, but it was actually a bit too hard this early on. My bad. So two laps to go and I rotate back onto the front and take the field through for another lap, this time bringing the pace back up higher. Jamie pulls through and I slot in one more time. I’m feeling great and when he comes off I take it another few corner full gas, pull off and we start to see riders swarm into the corner. Phil and Randall are together and keep the pace hot and Chris comes through on the final corners taking Kayle down the backstretch at Mach speed now. He dumps him off into the final corner and swings off for the last time. From there it’s up to the sprinters. Out of the last corner Kayle lights it up and puts a huge gap on the top 4 or 5 riders. Talk about “moral hazard”, it was the gap that was “too big to fail”. While a couple guys could close it, they did not have enough to come around and overtake him. We get the win and Chris holds on for a solid fifth place. A successful night for the Monster Media p/b MRI team!
Night two: The Brady Village Criterium. Going into the race we are leading the Omnium standings and we are now the team to watch. Our pre-race plan tonight will be a similar one to Friday, as the course and outcome of the race look to be likely similar: follow moves that look promising however be ready for a longer and even more difficult night of racing. The race time will be timed for 70 minutes and we can count on the backstretch hill to add the element of attrition into tonight’s race. If the race stayed together, we’d need to make sure to set up the lead out again inside around three laps to go and deliver our sprinters.
Overall, there were five or six teams that were represented in the race, and we only knew of two of the teams that raced out of Southern California. The other squads were based out of Oklahoma and Texas and some others from the mid west and pacific northwest. They had similar numbers to ours, maybe four or five riders each to our six in total.
The race was fast from the gun. It felt considerably faster than Friday night and to add more pain into the equation we’d see that false flat hill up Main St. where the pace quickens on each lap. The descent off the backside of the hill funneled the racers down into the last corner for a somewhat sweeping yet tight left hander and a quick shot to the finish line.
The team collectively followed many wheels off the front and bridged some early attacks to try and keep the race together. It seemed that nothing would get away tonight, as the field was keen on keeping everything close, even if it meant sprinting full gas up Main St. to re-attach. Adding to the difficulty of the race were the strong winds blowing on most sections of the course. So once you’re out there with a few guys to try and breakaway, the winds would zap your energy to fight and deplete your power stores to keep the group away.
Fast-forward to the closing laps of the race now and the lap counter is now glowing red with 5 laps to go. Three guys had escaped the field and were up the road with a good-sized gap of close to 30 seconds. In Crit racing it can only take a lap or less to establish a gap if the field sits up and looks at each for chasers. That’s all the breakaway might need to build a quick 30 seconds. Uh – oh! It’s a critical time in the race now to move up and join teammates Jamie and Chris who were already doing quite a bit of work riding at the very front of the group. We needed to get organized and do it fast to start a chase!
Coming through the second turn, I see another rider taking the corner with a considerable amount more speed than those around him – this is usually my cue to move another lane way towards a safer spot in the road. The rider overcooks the turn and rides up along the curb but looses control and buries himself into a chain link fence being used to separate some building construction from the street level. I can see him out of the corner of my eye as he piles into the fencing, and the riders around him just start getting collected one by one. I take a big dig on the chain ring and squeeze through a small hole that was opening up as the riders around me begin to fan out to avoid the others that are now bouncing back into the middle of the road and crashing. A horrific sound as carbon meets fencing, then pavement. Unfortunately we lose Randall in the pile up and he had the legs for us tonight to be a top sprinter in the bike race. He made it out of there with some road rash and will live to fight the next day.
I make it through clean and power through turn 3 and up the Main. Four laps to go and there are still three guys off the front- the field is totally strung out single file now. Three laps to go and I’m sitting close to the front, maybe 6 or 7 wheels back, so I begin to move into position just before turn one and take a sharp fast line through the tight left hander and set up for the next quick left hander. My goal here is to start the lead out as the riders up the road are benefiting from no other teams getting organized to chase them down. Another lap down and we see two to go.
Racing through the last corner, fighting the headwind as I pull the field alongside the metal barrier fencing past the screaming crowd, my adrenaline kicks in and I hear Dave announcing “One to go, one to go, one to gooooo!” I ramp up the speed even more and mash down on the pedals, but it’s still a bit too much too soon. I back it down just a touch and try to keep the pace steady so that we don’t get swarmed. We catch a dangling rider from the break, so now we are racing for 3rd place. Crossing the line with 1 lap to go I have two more corners in my legs. My mouth is wide open and sucking in as much air as I can and breathing out my ass! It’s soon time for Jamie and Chris to take over and help finish it off for a field sprint. Turn one, hard. Turn two, more power and finally I pull the pin just to the inside of turn 3. Jamie takes up the front and drills it up the climb and drops Chris off just before the top of the hill on Main before going into the corner. Chris drives it down the descent at close to 40 mph and rails it into the last corner. Kayle has been sitting on his wheel receiving the draft and takes it to the line for a very closely contested 3rd place finish. Chris holds off the charging field for a top 5 finish. Great work and a good solid placing, but the mission was to win the race and the breakaway of riders could not be caught tonight. The team gathered back at the tent to de-brief and then off to have dinner and get some rest for the night.
The finale: The Riverview “Criterium”. It’s where the fireworks happen on this 1+ mile circuit that climbs, punches and rolls. It’s the toughest stage of the weekend and arguably of our whole season as bike racers. The scene on the top of the climb, known as “Cry Baby Hill”, is in one word: spectacular. It’s pure madness and the sights and sounds are overwhelming! There are thousands of fans that await the racers going up the hill and they line the streets literally forming a narrow channel for us to race through. These freaks of cycling fans have been partying Tulsa style all day long in anticipation of the great bike racing to come. Armed with bottles of water, ice cold water balloons, super soaker squirt guns, garden hoses, ice cold beer cans, and even a kiddie swim pool – whatever they can get their hands on or heads into – these folks are for real! We racers feed off of their energy and I for one think it’s the most uniquely exciting thing about any bike race that I’ve ever done. Despite the degree of difficulty that this stage presents, Cry Baby Hill and the River View crowd keep me coming back for more each year!
Today is hot, close to 95 degrees and the winds are again blowing hard. A Pre – race warm up ride and a quick gathering of the team under the tent, near some shade close to the River to stay as cool as possible. We’ve got nylon pantyhose packed with ice to stuff into our jerseys and ice-cold water and Cokes to keep us cool and caffeinated. We are basically on our own today to try and salvage the best possible stage finish and placing in the overall Omnium results. We have two Monster Media in the top five overall so it’s going to be important that we do what we can to finish as far upfront as possible to secure Omnium points. Today will come down to a race of attrition. Who can stay on the lead group of riders, as the race up the hill time after time will wear your legs down to the last screaming muscle fibers.
The gun goes off and the field charges hard in the opening laps, everyone jockeying for top positions before we hit the bottom of the hill. Almost everyone is out of the saddle going into battle and charging the hill as if we were a platoon of soldiers ordered to overtake a beachhead!
The pace didn’t let up until around to 8 or 10 laps into the race. There were some small early attacks, but the peloton was intent to keep everything together on the flat section crossing the start/finish line. Another chance to bridge up to any moves were in the sections on the top of the climb, on the rollers and then again on the fast, steep downhill decent into the sharp final corner.
One by one the field was getting smaller, starting with over 100 guys, I would check back to see close to a 1/3 were gone with just over a ¼ of the racing into the books. I have a love / hate relationship with the CB hill by way; it seems to suit my style of riding: a power climb, not too steep and not too long with the big ring punchy roller just beyond the climb. But man it can hurt! As you crest the top, jam the gearing up into the big ring. Settle into the saddle now and push the pedals hard until you start your short descent and do your best to recover here for 5 seconds or so if possible taking a draft behind the soaking wet ass of the guy in front of you.
Setting up now for the descent into the finishing corner: well that’s just a game of nerves. Be calm, steady, hold your line and be ready to hold a tight fast lane through the corner. Punch it one or two revolutions out of the corner, in or out of the saddle, and get back in line in the draft being created as the field strings out towards the start finish line. Once you approach the base of Cry Baby Hill, properly shift from big ring to small ring, add or drop a couple of plates on the rear cassette to find a comfortable gear to spin up the hill. At the base of the hill we’ll ride up onto the corner, which is basically an off-camber hump. We’re at full speed here, using some of the momentum now to start the hill. Climbing now out of the saddle, push hard, harder… harder … then stay on the gas and I like to accelerate through the uphill corner. You are not done yet … still climbing out of the corner we stair step a couple of seconds more and then… The Sound. Faint at first before the corner, now getting louder. The sounds of the fans ahead are thunderous now! They’re cheering, clanking cowbells, and someone is blaring the Siren mode on his bullhorn. They are crowding the road, forming only a thin line for us to race through. Brace yourself for the dude running alongside you in a bright blue speedo wearing a Mexican Wrestler mask as he lobs a water balloon at you. Ah, relief … It’s 97 degrees today, you know? Here’s the buff chick dressed like Superwoman taking aim at your face with her Super Soaker squirt gun. Is that guy with the fake Afro and mustache pedaling a stationary bike actually on the side of the racecourse? I love this shit!
You get through soaking wet and smelling of Pabst Blue Ribbon and hit the top. Shift back into to the big ring and stomp some more. Repeat, over and over again or see below for an example …
At the halfway mark of the race, the field was torn apart and smaller groups were forming off the back. My goal today was to stay with the lead group and be up front and drive the pace on the climb and along the flat on Riverside Drive. I wanted to contribute my best to make sure nothing went clear that might threaten a winning break and help the team for overall points. By default, I’m also riding for the best finish myself – and fortunately this stage allows you to do both, as Friday and Saturday’s tactics did not. All well and good as that’s part of racing with a team.
On now to 7 laps to go and the field is completely blown apart. What was once a field of 100+ riders strong were now only 25 left as the front group. Chris was doing a great job being near the front and riding to protect his overall position in the Omnium. I made my way closer towards him and realized he was digging so deep that he couldn’t even bark at me! So when small gaps would open up from others riders, I’d go head down and balls out to close them up as best as I could. With three laps to go, we are lined out up the climb, a small band of pathetic soaked marching ants suffering up the slog. At this point no one has the energy left to initiate an attack so we all stay together, and down to two to go. I almost come unhinged over the top of the climb, as a few riders cannot stay with the accelerations over the crown of the hill and they start popping off one by one- I’m about to be one of them for certain. I’m sure that my heart rate is 200+ beats per minute. Chris comes up on my wheel now as we hit the rollers and shouts to dig! Exactly what I needed to keep me in the game.
The final lap and up the climb for the last time. All I can think about is finishing up strong- I am in Tulsa! I want so badly to reach down deep just one more time to attack the group as we get close to the top and give myself a chance at a Podium. I charge to the inside, passing three or four riders, take a run up the inside lane on the hill, but my legs are absolutely seizing up and we still have a half a lap to go. I sit straight back down and slot into position as we roll again and take the 3rd corner lined out, setting up to ride the downhill section. I take an aggressive inside line through the final corner on the bottom of the hill but so do three or four other guys and I have to slam the on the brakes as the door shuts on me.
Standing up to sprint now from this far back is almost useless but I still go hard and pass a few riders to come in with the leaders and finish 21st. Chris holds on for an impressive sixth place finish in the stage and a 4th place overall in the Omnium.
Kayle finishes 5th place overall in the Omnium.
We came home with some great results and some incredible bike racing in Tulsa. I can’t wait for 2013!