One nice thing about bike racing is that it can take you to previously unknown places. More often than not these environs are physical, as competition pushes you into new realms of strain and fitness. But, they can also be geographic. Both cases share in equal measure an exciting element of self-discovery. As an example of the latter, let’s take New Jersey. Admittedly, my previously-held conception was influenced in large part by MTV’s tawdry The Jersey Shore, the ruthless partisanship of Governor Chris Christie exposed in the wake of ‘Bridgegate’, and the iron-gray, industrial cheerlessness of New Jersey’s northernmost seaboard. Whatever quality of truth these elements may hold, having spent the last weekend racing in and around New Jersey’s State Parks and National Recreation Areas, I’ve acquired a far more balanced view. Spring rains and the hot blasts of early summer sun combined to showcase these quiet, rural areas in a splendor both verdant and serene, leaving no doubt about New Jersey’s rightful characterization as America’s Garden State. A few weeks ago several of us raced the Giro del Cielo, which translates as the Tour of the Sky, or even more colorfully, the Tour of the Heavens (Italian doesn’t differentiate between ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’, using ‘cielo’ for both). ‘GdC’ or ‘Cielo’, as the race became known on the Team’s email thread, is a two-day, three-stage race that includes a 13-mile undulating TT, a crit, and a 50-mile road race. With demand for multi-day stage races generally down across the U.S., the promoters allowed racers to pick individual races from the three disciplines on offer. While some of us rode for the General Classification, completing a full plate racing, several teammates took advantage of the flexibility afforded by the promoters to come out and race the crit on Saturday. With Andrew, Roger and Donnie in the P/1/2 field and Colin and I in the 3’s, we had a compact, but solid group out for the afternoon of racing.
The crit takes place within the confines of the Sussex County Fairground on a course that’s actually more akin to a short, intense circuit race. Each lap is a bit more than one mile, with three, 90-degree turns, a fast, slightly downhill chicane where speeds reach 35-40 mph, and a short kicker a few hundred yards before the finish. Arriving with several hours to spare before race time, I carefully negotiated the whale of a Dodge Caravan I’d rented for the weekend into a spot next to the growing row of cars parked in the grass along the finishing straight. We raised the rear door and jury-rigged a set of box seats out of the back of the Dodge. This would serve as the afternoon’s designated cheering section, occupied by Colin and me during the P/1/2 race, and Donnie and Roger while we 3’s were out on the course.
The P/1/2 field saw a break of two riders get away midway through race. With an interest in setting up Donnie for the sprint, and being one of the better represented teams in the field in terms of sheer numbers, the lion’s share of the work fell on Andrew and Roger to bring it back. Shouting encouragement and time gaps to the guys on each lap, Colin and I confirmed that the break was slowly but surely getting reeled in. With Andrew and Roger contributing with Herculean pulls the catch seemed, but the break’s stubbornness resisted the field’s best attempts to bring it back. With two laps to go it became a break of one as the dropped rider drifted back toward to the pack. Things ramped up for the sprint, and Donnie, who’s spent so much time on podiums lately it’s as if he’s paying rent, shot down the backside of the kicker. He carried his speed through the last soft right-hander, and continued to make up ground along the outside of the now strung out field. On the left-hand-side of the road and shielded by the cross-wind that buffeted the finishing straight, Donnie’s legs drove like pistons into his pedals. Mercilessly pipping the dropped breakaway rider at the line, he nabbed second place on the day.
The 3’s race nearly played out in exactly the same way. A two-man break clipped off the front early on, and after a few more laps two additional riders bridged, doubling the break’s size to four. With the escapees ever in view and unable to build on their advantage of several hundred yards, the field was initially content to let them hang off the front. This typically reflects the collective calculation that an injection of pace isn’t needed to pull back the break. Instead, an almost graceful weakening and sinking of the effort required by the breakaway riders themselves to sustain the gap will inevitably cause them to be reeled back in. However, with seven laps to go and the break still a meaningful distance off the front, Colin and I collaborated with a few other riders, setting about the work of dialing it back. Shouts of encouragement from Donnie and Roger, recovering from their race while propped on the bumper of the Dodge Caravan, fueled our efforts. Over the next three laps the gap closed considerably, emboldening riders to try a series of eager counter-attacks. Ultimately proving ineffectual, these didn’t amount to much more than snuffing out the break once and for all.
With two laps to go it was all back together. Though Colin and I had managed to spend much of the race near, but not on, the front, in the scramble for positioning on the last lap we found ourselves churned by the field. It was only after the race that I’d learn from Colin that he was at one point ridden into the grass, and had to rely on his cyclo-cross experience to keep the rubber side down and get back on the pavement. Heading toward the crucial, left-hand turn leading into the final kicker, I had lost complete sight of Colin and was terribly out of position somewhere around 30th wheel. Having to scrub speed owing to the accordion-like dynamics of the peloton in a 90-degree turn, I gave it everything over the last rise, and stayed on the gas even when the road flattened. Sneaking up the left side, I was able to make up a lot of places following a similar line to Donnie’s. Looking up as I crossed the line I saw Colin just ahead with another few riders also in view. It was an effort good enough for another podium for Colin in third, and a fifth place for me.