Gapers Block Criteriums
(March 21st – 25th)
The 2011 season got underway during the last week of March with a series known as the Gapers Block Crits. It is held on the south side of Chicago in Calumet Park and consists of racing Monday through Friday with 2 men’s races held every night. The course is basically an odd-shaped rectangle and is about 0.8 miles per lap. Each race for this series was 30 minutes in length. That means the pace can be as slow or as fast as the racers decide to make it, and typically it is fast. Criteriums are not my favorite events because they typically involve a lot of people going fast, very close to one another with corners every 30 seconds or so. It makes for a lot of crashes. I decided to do these races because it would be the quickest way for me to upgrade categories with the USA Cycling organization. I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to make it out because of my responsibilities with medical school, but I’d try my best. Needless to say, I was not in the greatest shape for these races, but there is no training quite like doing actual races. So, with this in mind, my goals were to 1) Get good hard efforts in every night, 2) Not crash, 3) Have fun, 4) See if I couldn’t sneak in a few good results along the way. I would say that I accomplished all of these goals by the end of the week. I was able to participate in 4 of the days of racing and each day I competed in both heats, for a total of 8 races. The weather was pretty chilly, and a couple of the nights sleet and wind were whipping off Lake Michigan. These were the nights I really loved, and ended up doing well. Apparently, head and crosswinds are not to everyone’s liking. The first heat on Tuesday I started in a breakaway immediately from the start with one other rider. After about 5 minutes at the front, I looked back and no one was with me. I decided to just keep pushing and pretend as though I was riding a time trial (my favorite type of racing) and by the end of the 30 minutes, I had nearly lapped the entire rest of the field. When the second heat rolled around 45 minutes later, word of my exploits had spread and so I had become a marked man. I managed to get in another breakaway with one other rider who ended up sitting on my wheel the entire race. At the finish, he clearly could have pulled around and taken the victory, but like a true sportsman, he realized that I had done all of the work and gave credit where credit was due. Classy move. From that point on, I was not given much room to roam, so I ended up spending the rest of the week at the front of the group just driving as hard as I could so as to get a great effort in for training. My time trial season was starting in just a few weeks and I wanted to be ready. I ended up placing 2nd and 3rd in a couple of the heats later in the week. Overall, I was very satisfied with the my time at the Gaper Block Crits and had done enough to upgrade to category 4 with the USA Cycling organization.
Time Trial Season:
Time trials are my preferred style of racing for a number of reasons. I enjoy pushing myself to the limit of my capabilities and then trying to maintain that until the end of the race. I like riding by myself, because that way I’m the only one to blame if things don’t turn out as I had hoped. I suppose I could blame weather, equipment or something else but that’d be lame. And by riding by yourself you virtually eliminate the risk of some other yahoo crashing into you and ruining your day and possibly your bike. It is a discipline of bike racing that definitely suits my strengths. For those of you who don’t know what exactly I’m talking about, I am including a brief description that I found on Wikipedia (obviously the most trusted source) that is pretty accurate:
An individual time trial (ITT) is a road bicycle race in which cyclists race alone against the clock (in French: contre la montre – literally “against the watch”). ITT’s are also referred to as “the race of truth”, as winning depends only on each rider’s strength and endurance, and not on help provided by team-mates and others riding ahead and creating a slipstream.
Starting times are at equal intervals, usually 30 seconds to one minute apart. Competitors are not permitted to draft (ride in the slipstream) behind each other. Any help between riders is forbidden. The rider with the fastest time is declared the winner.
I typically compete in races put on by a grass-roots cycling organization called ABR (American Bicycle Racing). There is a competition known as the Mid-America Time Trial Series (MATTS). One aspect about ABR that I enjoy is that they have a separate category for time trialing, which the USA Cycling organization does not. I began the year as a Category 3 ABR time trialist and was looking to upgrade by the middle of the year. The category system goes from Category 5 (beginner) to Category 1 (advanced).
John Fraser Memorial Time Trial
Finally, it was time for my time trial season to get underway. This was approximately a 10 mile course on flat, farm roads in the town of Maple Park, IL, located about an hour west of Chicago. The weather was unseasonably warm, but felt pretty nice. The wind was not much of a factor, and I expected some good times from both myself and other riders. I finished the 9.26 mile course in 20 minutes, 23 seconds (20:23) for an average speed of 27.4mph. This was good enough to win the Category 3 division and was the 5th fastest time overall. Luckily, I would have another shot next weekend to improve.
Cherry Valley Time Trial
This is a race I have done a number of times in the past, so I knew it well and was looking forward to it. Cherry Valley is a town right by Rockford, IL, which is one of the largest cities in Illinois, about 90 minutes from Chicago. An added bonus was that my brother from Minneapolis was in town and was going to race as well. He has a couple years more experience racing bikes and is a category 1 rider. So, while I wouldn’t be competing in the same category as he would, I liked the idea of the Toftoy brothers possibly going 1-2 on the day with the overall fastest times. I was fairly certain my brother Jon would win the overall (as he typically does), and I’d like to be somewhere near the top to join him. The weather was cooler than the previous week and there was a decent crosswind that was challenging the racers for most of the course. I don’t mind a good crosswind as I am a heavier rider than most. The wind can really toss the lighter guys and gals around, but not so much for a solidly built Norwegian like me. The legs didn’t feel great, but I set a personal record for the course and won the Category 3 competition with a comfortable margin. The official stats were 18.48 miles in 42:11 (average speed 26.4 mph). Jon won the overall with a time of 41:17, and I slotted into 4th place overall. I didn’t quite hold up my end of the bargain, but my main objectives were to come late in the season, so I was not hitting the panic button just yet.
Single Bong Time Trial
The “Bong” Time Trials are a group of races in Kansasville, Wisconsin that circle the Richard Bong State Recreation area. A little history about the area is that:
The area was once designated to be a jet fighter base, named after Major Richard I. Bong, a Poplar, Wisconsin, native who was America’s leading air ace during World War II. The project was abandoned three days before concrete was to be poured for a 12,500-foot runway. Local citizens had the foresight to protect this open space for future generations. In 1974 the state bought the land and it became the state’s first recreation area.
But for me, it is the site of my favorite race of the year. The single bong means that riders complete one lap on the 12.4 mile rectangle. While the single bong race is fun, it pales in comparison to the double bong (2 laps) later in the year. I had done well on this course before and I was hoping to do so once again. I prefer longer time trials (hence my affection for the double bong time trial) as I tend to have a better ability to sustain my efforts for a longer period of time rather than going incredibly hard for about 10 minutes. The longer the race also provides more of an opportunity to separate oneself from other riders. Regardless, I was hoping to make the best of the 20km course and continue on with the season. The legs again did not feel quite up to snuff, and I managed to squeak out a decent ride, but I wasn’t too pleased. I had the 6th fastest time of the day (fastest Cat 3), but 5 seconds quicker and I would have been 4th overall. I know I could have found those 5 seconds somewhere. This race was a turning point for me as I was determined to never let that close of a margin determine my placing again. I finished with a time of 26:23 (average speed 27.3 mph).
All of the races up until this point had taken place during my Pediatrics rotation for school, which generally allowed for free weekends and typically worked 10-12 hours/weekday. I was able to find some time to train, but not as much as I would have wanted to. I was then about to start six weeks of Obstetrics/Gynecology, which has pretty intensive hours. This meant 4 am alarms and being at the hospital from 5am-6/7pm most days. Thankfully, this occurred during May-June, when the daylight is more plentiful. Together every morning, my bike would accompany me to the hospital, and I would train after I was off work. Somehow, I managed to keep a level of fitness that probably exceeded the time I was able to dedicate.
Blue Mounds TT
This course 30 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin is awesome. It is a 10 mile route that traverses around and up the Blue Mounds state park. These are some of the best hills in the upper Midwest, and I had seen these roads many times before. I had competed in this race 3 years prior and I looked forward to seeing how I had improved in the interim. The course starts with 7 miles of rolling hills before the final 3 miles, all of which are uphill with a total elevation gain of around 1,000 feet. While this is not much to folks who train in Colorado, a 3 mile steady climb is a monster to many folks in the Midwest. The weather was pretty much perfect and the legs felt good on the warm-up. I kept the pace high the first 7 miles and figured I’d just try to hang on for the final 3. The plan seemed to work, and I had pretty much ran out of gas as I hit the finishing line atop the “Blue Mound”. I ended up 2nd on the day, 11.8 seconds behind the winner (who had previously beaten me by over a minute in some of the races earlier in the season). This was a major boost to my confidence and I knew I could be on the verge of a good year. Again, I set a personal record almost 2 minutes quicker than 3 years ago with a time of 28:05 (average 22 mph, maximum speed 49.8 mph).
Tour of Galena
I opted to skip a couple of the big races on the MATTS circuit to compete in the inaugural Tour of Galena. Galena is a small town in the northwestern corner of Illinois with some pretty impressive hills. In fact, it is the home to the highest point in Illinois, albeit only 1,235 feet in elevation. This was held under the USA Cycling flag, so I would be competing as a category 4 racer. The weekend consisted of 3 races. A short time trial on Saturday morning, followed by a road race on Saturday afternoon. Then, there would be a criterium on Sunday and points would be awarded for placings in each of the stages and the person with the most cumulative points would be the overall winner. This style of point scoring is known as an Omnium. I wanted to do the time trial and there are not many road races in Illinois that include good climbs so I was sure to be there. The time trial was only 4.4 miles, so it would be short and fast. You have to hit the start line all warmed up and the engine ready to roll. The course included one steep hill after the turn around that hit gradients of 15%, virtually unheard of for a time trial bike. I couldn’t wait. I decided to go with my standard time trial setup, although many riders chose to use their regular road bikes. It was a calculated risk on my part that paid off. During the warm-up I could sense it would be a great day. The race was indeed fast and short and I finished with a time of 9:25. I was confident that this would be good enough to win the category 4 and I did not want to stick around for the official results as I needed to get ready for 45 mile road race in just a few hours. What I later found out was that I had the fastest overall time of the day, including all of the category 1/professional riders! The closest rider was a category 1 rider, and he was over 50 seconds back. I guess the legs felt good indeed, but did I save enough for the road race?
As I switched bikes and started warming up with my road bike for the next race, I noticed it was not shifting gears as it should. I fiddled with it for a few minutes and couldn’t fix it. I realized it was beyond my capabilities, so I’d have to take it to a mechanic with all the proper tools. I only had 30 minutes to race time and was starting to get a bit nervous. The race mechanic was swamped by other riders, so I found a bike shop and luckily someone was willing to take a look. He did the best he could, but I’d soon be facing the many hills without all of my gears. My biggest fear was that my chain would keep slipping and I would not be able to keep up as I should. I had a functional bike and got to the start line 3 minutes before the everything got underway. Definitely not the way to start a race. The race was on a beautiful 22.5 mile loop that we completed twice. There were 5 major climbs each lap with a total elevation gain of over 1,500 feet per loop. The pack stayed together for most of the first lap, and my legs were feeling alright and my nerves had calmed down. During the second lap the pace picked up and the group had split in half. I was with the front group and staying near the front with just 2 climbs left to go. I was part of a breakaway group of 6 who had just been reeled back with about 6 miles to go and starting the last major climb. I went to shift, and my chain came completely off! This has happened before, but never at this inopportune of a time. I tried my best to get it back on the chain ring without having to dismount, but I eventually surrendered and got off to put the chain back on. By the time I had finished all of this I had lost 45 seconds and the lead pack was going at a fast pace. I spent the final 6 miles trying to catch back on, but I was working alone and then the good ol’ muscle cramps started in. I managed to pick up a few of the riders and finished 19th out of around 50 riders, but this was not the result I was hoping for. I decided to pass on the criterium the next day given that I was not in contention for the overall win and the fact I dislike crits very much. I later found out there was a big crash in the criterium on Sunday and my decision to head home was confirmed as a wise one. Overall, I enjoyed the race very much, and I hope to come back next year. The TT result was better than I could have hoped for and was likely my most impressive performance of the year.
Paw Paw Time Trial
(June 26th) ABR Illinois State Time Trial Championship
There are two state time trial championships each year, one for ABR and one for USA Cycling. Today was 40km (24.8miles) of racing to determine the ABR state champion for Illinois. I was competing in category 3 and the weather was comfortable, with a decent breeze on the out and back course in Paw Paw, IL. I had seen these roads on some training rides and knew there were a few small hills, but nothing compared to Galena or Blue Mounds. My goals were to win the category 3 championship and to be in the running for the overall crown. I felt pretty relaxed and ready to go and was pleased with my time of 53:25 (average 27.4 mph). I don’t think I could have done much better on that day. I won my category and ended up with a sweet state champion jersey. I finished 2nd overall, only bettered by a category 1 racer. I was happy that I was now putting up better times than some folks I had been losing to earlier in the year. As a result I was upgraded to competing as a category 1 rider for time trials with ABR.
My 4th year of medical school had now started and I knew the next 2 months would become very difficult to train and to race. I am still interested in orthopaedic surgery, and now it was time to work. And by work I mean putting in 15 hour days at the hospital trying to learn as much as I could about the field I am planning on going into. Most of my weekends were spent at the hospital, and I would have time for shorter, intense workouts just to try to maintain fitness. I spent 1 month at my home institution of the University of Illinois at Chicago before heading out to the University of Iowa for another 4 weeks of orthopaedics in Iowa City. Both experiences were great, but I did not have any chance to race during these 2 months. When I returned back to Chicago in mid-August I was definitely ready to see what my legs could do in the last couple of races on the calendar.
Double Bong Time Trial
(August 28th) ABR Wisconsin State Time Trial Championship
This is my favorite race as I have previously mentioned. The weather was not too hot for a late August morning, and this is fine by me. I don’t care for the heat all that much. The wind was not that big of a factor and I was eager to see if I had made improvements from the single bong time trial earlier in the year. My goal was to win my category (as I was now competing as a Cat 1) and to be close to my double bong time from the previous year, which had been one of my better races ever. I could not win a state jersey as I am an Illinois resident, but this is a race I had been targeting all year. My split time after the first lap was right on my expected pace and I was able to finish the 24.8 mile course with a time of 52:30 (average 27.6 mph). I was shooting for a time under 53 minutes, and I was happy with how things ended up. Its easy to inflate your goals once you are done, but it’s best not to play that game. I was 24 seconds slower than last year, but given my lack of training and racing in recent months, I was happy to be the fastest Category 1 rider. But even more importantly, I was looking to use this race as the perfect preparation for the following weekend, the USA Cycling Illinois State Time Trial Championship!
Harvard Time Trial
(September 3rd) USA Cycling Illinois State Time Trial Championship
The time had finally come for my biggest objective of the season: to defend my Category 4 crown from last year. Harvard is the home of a classic time trial course that is just over 20 miles in length, with a slight uphill for the home stretch. It is flat for the most part, and this year the road surface had deteriorated from that last time I had ridden it. I pre-rode the course in the car to scout it out so I knew what was coming. The rain held off until after the race was finished, and there was a little head to crosswind for the return to the finish line. I tried to set realistic goals of winning my category and equaling my time from last year. I felt confident that both of these were doable, and this was confirmed after a solid warm up. The race was hard as always and when I crossed the line with a time of 43:20 (average 27.9 mph) I was pumped to have improved upon my 2010 time by 30 seconds! I felt that times would be faster today given the conditions, and this later proved to be true. My time was good enough to win the Category 4 title and got another state champion jersey to match the one from last year!
Congratulations Andrew, we look forward to more updates!