Cycle racing is back at last. And not just on the telly (or in my case, the computer monitor thanks to dodgy internet streaming). Yes, the Giro d’Italia got under way on Saturday but more importantly we had our first bike race of the season in Sapporo with a criterium in the small town of Naganuma not far from Sapporo.
It’s a long day for such a short race – We got up at 5.30am to get ready for our chauffeur Mr Kon to take us to Naganuma in time to sign on by 8.30 and have Kazuko ready for her 9.30am start. My race wasn’t until 1.20pm and Mr Kon’s was the race after that. Here’s how Kaz looks warming up:
And here she is waiting before the start with Ms Onishi:
And look at that acceleration off the start line:
The ladies were mixed in with the masters (over 55s), the junior women (actually woman – there was just one) and the junior high school boys. A very odd mix indeed. Kazuko says before the start, one of the old men joked: “Young lady, I’ll pay you 1000 yen to lead me out for a lap”. She should have taken the money, I say. Attic was the only team with two ladies but there wasn’t much chance of team tactics – they were both riding alone by the end of the first lap.
Kaz had been sick and coughing all week so hadn’t had much of a chance to train and said her lungs started hurting quite quickly during the ride. One lap of the course was 1.6km and her event was seven laps. Kaz managed about three-and-a-half laps before she was lapped by the front runners and had to get off the course and walk back. She seemed happy enough with her first crit but says at least when she does a time trial, she’s allowed to finish.
By the time my grade was due to start, I was both excited and nervous. This was just my second criterium and in the last one I was in S2 (second grade) but this year I’ve been demoted to s4 (fourth grade) I think because last year I was on a day licence and this year I have a proper licence so I have to start at S4 and work my way up. Also in S4 was an Aussie bloke called Bevan. He was riding for Team Niseko which is a hot bed of Australian cycling in Hokkaido. Niseko is famous for skiing and outdoor activities and for some reason there is a very strong Australian presence there. I think some of the ski resorts are Australian-owned.
Bevan said it was his first race so he would have been in the same boat as me for being put into S4 grade. We made sure we were near the front for our start and went flat-strap off the line and soon formed a group of six riders and easily left the rest of the field behind. So far, it was all going according to plan but unfortunately my inexperience and lack of any sort of tactical ability soon started counting against me.
I sometimes hear cycling being described as ‘chess on wheels’. This is of course utter nonsense. Chess is an entirely cerebral and extremely complex game. Cycling is mainly physical and has some strategy mainly because of drafting – the rider at the front is doing about 30 per cent more work than those tucked in behind and out of the wind. There are other factors, especially when teamwork becomes involved but that’s about it. Having said that, my strategy for this race was about the equivalent of simply moving pawns forward and hoping that one of them was hiding strap-on explosives under his coat which he could detonate as soon as he gets near the enemy king. I had got it into my head that I was a super-strong cyclist and by pushing the pace all the way around the course, I would soon wear out all the cyclists in my group and ride in solitary glory to the finish line. Bevan had a much better strategy – he tucked himself in at the back of our group and attacked at the right moment with a couple of laps to go. He timed it perfectly – I had been riding at the front of the bunch into the wind and didn’t have it in my legs to chase him down and get on to his wheel. Apparently I’d succeeded in wearing out the others in our group though because none of them even tried to catch him. Like Boonen chasing Cancellara in this year’s Paris-Roubaix, I wasn’t interested in coming second so threw myself into the job of trying to catch Bevan but all that happened was I was too tired at the end to really compete the sprint to the finish, so like Boonen I came home fifth.
I was still pretty happy with the result. Bike racing is a heck of a lot of fun and I learnt some good lessons about riding tactically in a small bunch and when and how to eventually attack them. I just wish we had races more often so I could learn more quickly. The day finished with an open criterium for people from all grades. It was only five laps so the pace was flat out the whole way around. All the first graders started at the front while some distance back on the start line. This meant I spent the whole race chasing down other riders and trying to catch the front group. I ran out of laps to catch them but it was a lot of fun chasing people down the whole way around the course. I ended up 27th which I think is not too bad.
Our initial plan had been to go for a meal in Naganuma with Mr Kon and Ms Onishi but as we were leaving, a few other team members were keen for some debriefing over a meal and a beer or two and we had to celebrate our victory of the day – young Sasaki-kun won the junior race – so we decided to meet up back in Sapporo at the restaurant at the Sapporo Beer Museum.
Hokkaido is famous for Ghengis Kahn barbecue – lamb cooked on a hot plate at your table and the restaurant at the beer museum has an all-you-can-eat-and-drink deal. And what is more, Monday is my day off so I was happy to drink away my day’s disappointment and instead celebrate the enjoyment we all had.
There’s another race at the end of this month but the entrance fee is outrageous so I’ll be missing that one. This leaves me with a pretty big gap until the next race after that one. Plenty of time to train and try to come up with less stupid tactics.