In the lead-up to the CRCA Grant's Tomb Criterium many New York City based racers are focused on preparations for this event, which serves as the unofficial start to the road racing season in the region.
The recent Journal Feature highlighted the role weather can play in the race - from the rain and cold temperature of the 2015 edition to the beautiful sunshine from last year. Expanding on that, we're going to walk through the course, drawing on our experience as 'Grant's Tomb Crit' veterans - several of our teammates got their start racing for Columbia University (CU) and served as race directors and organizers for the initial phase of the event when Grant's Tomb was a pillar of the collegiate calendar.
Grant's Tomb Crit: the Course
At a high level - jokes about its shape aside - Grant's Tomb is a relatively straightforward 0.9 mile five corner course. But it's also a course that has become more technical over the years due to road alterations that have narrowed several of the corners. Combined with the short 122nd Street climb and plenty of exposure to gusty March winds it's a course that can quickly sap your energy if the racing is aggressive.
Corner 1: Riverside and 120th street (LEFT)
Originally a wide open left-hander, pedestrian improvements instituted two years ago made the first corner the tightest on the course. However since the corner follows the long uphill finish straightaway the field is rarely at top speed and there is plenty of room to maneuver on Riverside Drive going into the corner.
Net-net the changes to this corner make Grant's a more challenging course which ultimately ensures safer racing by forcing greater emphasis on tactics and providing opportunity to string out and ultimately exhaust the field. Even with the changes West 120th Street has been a safe corner in the most recent editions of the race.
Of note after corner one 120th Street remains narrowed down to ~1.5 lanes due to traffic requirements with Riverside Church. As a result the field often stays strung out, presenting the opportunity for riders on the front to push the pace through the more technical elements on the South end of the course.
Note: the images of corner one above pre-date the pedestrian improvements that narrowed the corner by introducing a curb on the inside of the turn.
Corner 2: 120th Street and Claremont (LEFT)
Corner two is a straightforward left-hand affair offering plenty of line choices onto Claremont Avenue. Speed increases slightly on the straightaway into this corner but with the full width of the road available on Claremont and fresh pavement installed within the past two years this corner is one of the cleanest on the course.
The only thing to watch for is the manhole cover on the inside line, especially if there is precipitation on race day. But otherwise this is typically a full-speed turn best taken fast and wide onto Claremont as pace through this corner benefits those who are on the front going into corner three.
COrner 3: Claremont and 122nd Street (LEFT)
Corner three is the most interesting on the course. The field typically picks up momentum on the downhill straight on Claremont Avenue making it the fastest of the four 90-degree turns on the course.
And since the turn drops racers right onto the climb up 122nd Street, riders on the front of the pack with clean lines have the benefit of the best momentum to roll over the top of the climb. In comparison riders who slow into or through corner three - there will be braking involved mid-pack - will have to burn extra energy to reaccelerate and close any gaps to the leaders. Particularly if the pace is high through corners one and two look for attacks to come and gaps to open out of this corner.
Corner three also features a few road grates and manhole covers on the preferred inside lines seen in the picture below. It's worth keeping these in mind, especially if there is any precipitation on race day. In dry conditions these are generally fine to roll over, just be aware of the divots they create.
Corner 4: 122nd Street and Riverside (RiGHT)
Corner four is unique in that it's the only right-hander on the course but it's also a very simple affair. Riders on the front with clean lines will be able to float over the 122nd St climb with enough momentum to carry good speed through this wide open turn. In comparison riders in the back may need to pedal through it to close gaps that opened on the climb.
The ensuing flat on Riverside Drive North rapidly gives way to a downhill grade. This presents a good opportunity to chase back on, particularly if the leaders pull off the gas.
Historically some riders have also used this downhill to move up through the field but changes to corner five (described below) will necessitate a narrowing of the course on Riverside Drive north which may limit opportunities to do so in this year's edition of the race.
Note that neutral service is located on the outside edge of corner four, approximately where the silver station wagon is parked in the image above. The view above also serves as the start line for the race - keep this in mind as call-ups will typically start before the prior race concludes as there are just a handful of minutes between each race.
Corner 5: The riverside u-turn (LEFT)
The final corner on the course is definitely the fastest - a sweeping 180-degree left-hander that comes at the end of the long-straight and gradual descent on Riverside Drive North.
This corner features new pedestrian improvements that weren't in place for the 2016 edition of the race (the picture below is pre-improvements). As a result the turn is ~30% narrower than in prior editions of the race and features a tall sidewalk curb on the outside line - important to keep in mind for the upcoming edition of the race.
That said there is plenty of room to maneuver on the straight going into the corner and this corner is not technical enough to be a deciding factor in the race - it's one of those course features where 'the race cannot be won in this corner but it can most definitely be lost with a crash.'
So keep it safe through this turn - for everyone's sake. The best advice is to make sure the field stays sufficiently strung out going into and coming out of the 180. Bunching into a fast hairpin is where things get hairy, not only costing you positioning but also potentially ruining everyone's race with a crash.
FINISHING STRAIGHT (Riverside Drive Southbound)
The finishing straight for the Grant's Tomb Crit is a long, gradual uphill. In recent editions the finishing line has been ~400 meters from the exit of corner 5, presenting plenty of opportunity for riders to launch too early and run out of steam (further underscoring why corner 5 rarely dictates the outcome of the race).
The wind direction can play a significant role in the sprint as well - recent years have featured wind from just about every possible direction from headwinds to crosswinds to a rare tailwind race finish. So it's definitely worth keeping a sense for the wind direction on race day and adjusting your sprint point accordingly.
To further illustrate the excitement of a finish at Grant's, Aimee Layton, the winner of the Women's 2/3 field in 2016 recounts the final moments for the CityMD team.
cityMD 2016 Race Recap by W2/3 winner Aimee Layton
We had a solid plan for what we wanted to do in the finish of the race and it was definitely a team effort throughout. Lisa Vandivort put in some big attacks to wake-up the field mid race. I countered Lisa's attacks in an attempt to keep the momentum going. Barb Blakley, coming off a third place in the 3/4 race, and Renee Engelhardt were the steady force, making sure to keep an eye on anything that looked dangerous.
Going into the finish the team lined up, Aimee, Renee and Lisa just after turn one. Coming out of the kicker hill on the final lap, Lisa had a mechanical forcing her out of contention and down our lead out 'sweeper'. It was down to me and Renee.
The field bunched coming around the hairpin into the final strip and Renee got boxed in, beginning to lose my wheel. Being the experienced racer that she is, Renee kept me steady and shouted "GO GO!" to lead me through the gaps. When I found one, I jumped! Having no idea that Renee wasn't on my wheel, I grit my teeth and hammered for the drop off point to lead out Renee, timing that we had meticulously practiced the week leading into the race.
But I wasn't seeing Renee's wheel coming around me, instead she was screaming for me to keep going! So in the moment, with all the adrenaline running, I did! Thanks to Renee's encouragement, I persisted and was never caught and crossed the line first.
grant's Tomb is a special race
The team collectively has had many fond - and perhaps some not so fond due to weather - memories of the Grant's Tomb Crit over the years. Whether it was back in the ECCC heyday when members were running around both organizing and racing with CU in near hurricane conditions or the more recent years where our CITYMD team has had great success racing together in both sunny and foggy conditions or ongoing memories from those of us who still run around organizing race logistics, it is certainly a race that holds a special place in our hearts.
One of those such memories is particularly special to Aimee, who found early motivation for years to come from her participation at Grant's and perhaps help lead to her recent success.
My first Grant's Tomb Crit was back in 2009 - it was my second race ever. Liz, Shane and I were teammates on CU, all racing in the ECCC equivalent of a Cat 4 field. I was a complete mess, didn’t know what I was doing and likely got reprimanded for my bike handling by my own teammates, but somehow pulled off a 6th place finish. But the most memorable moment of that day wasn't my own race but watching my first USAC W P1/2/3 race. Our then CU teammate Maggie Shirley, who was also riding for Radical Media on the road, lead out future superstar Evie Stevens for the sprint (who got 2nd to cycling legend Laura Van Gilder). That sprint finish will be forever burned in my memory and is the entire reason I continued bike racing.
The CRCA has worked really hard over the years to create new opportunities at Grant's Tomb for more and more fields to race, including a huge emphasis on women, juniors and development field opportunities.
We are so fortunate to have FOUR separate Women's fields during the day, and we want to encourage more to come out for the 2017 edition.
If you haven't yet registered for this classic NYC race, there isn't much time left to sign up, with lots of spots left in the women's field...what are you waiting for?! CRCA GRANTS REGISTRATION
Lisa is manager and co-founder of the CityMD Women's Racing Team, a NYC based road and cyclocross racer, former board member of the CRCA and always planning her next travel adventure.