If a group of men pay their $32.50 registration fees, drive to the venue and race their bikes in circles for an hour and 45 minutes but the entire field gets disqualified, did the race actually happen? For the fellow who crashed hard in the first lap of the race and broke his hip, there certainly is the lingering physical evidence that corroborates the fact that something transpired. For the rest of us however, there are simply memories and residual feelings of angst and terror at sections of this race that never actually happened, officially.
This past Saturday was the Wayne Elliot road race. I believe that this race used to be a criterium years ago, in an industrial park in Haverhill and I think that I even raced it once. A couple of years back it surfaced as a circuit race in Plaistow, NH or some similar town, which ran through the downtown as part of a town festival, during said downtown based festival. The course was primarily good but the festival traffic and congested downtown made for some very problematic racing. Many crashed, a number were seriously hurt, in multiple fields. It just didn't work and the organizers learned from this.
Last year the race had a new venue, in Merrimac, MA, away from traffic and the town center and on some fairly nice roads. Sure, there was some questionable pavement and a fast downhill into a flat sprint finish but with small fields it would be fine, which was the case last year. As a new race, attendance was not huge and for the Cat 2/3 combined race, consisted of many known quantities; Master's racers and solid 2/3 racers. The race was uneventful last year and a break managed to escape off the front as I recall. I did my usual pace pushing, chasing stupidly and basically working too hard in general, for not. I recall being concerned with the finish so broke loose with about a kilometer to go and led into the finish, only to get safely swarmed on the line for the field sprint. Bottom line was that I survived.
This year was a different story. Many of the local Cat2 teams showed up as well as some of the stronger masters racers like JB, Wild Bill, John M., Marky G. and Pete. There were also some folks that nobody knew as well. The pack was big. The total count was listed in the non-results as 99. This made for an interesting mix on a narrow course that had mixed pavement conditions and not much of any features that were capable of breaking the field up. The race was anxious from the start and sure enough, in the first lap, there was a crash. It happened right in front of me when there was a swerve to miss some broken pavement that tangled to riders sending them both splaying to the ground toward the front third of the pack. I didn't even have a chance to hit the brakes but was able to turn just enough that only my front wheel had grazing contact with the rightmost downed rider, letting me escape between the two men on the deck. The front third drilled it so I chased hard but got back into the fray. Unfortunately, the pace decreased sufficiently for just about everyone to get back on in the next couple of miles.
It wasn't long before I started to notice flagrant yellow line violations and motorcycle officials attempting in vain to herd the sheep back over the fence. In a road race where the public roadways are not closed to traffic, racers are only allowed to use the one, right hand lane of traffic. Clearly this is for safety's sake for everyone as a rider in the left land getting hit head on by oncoming traffic is a danger to the entire field. In fact, some of you may recall this is a specific point in my ride disclaimer. Anyhow, the pack of racers also has a lead vehicle as well as a follow vehicle that creates a rolling enclosure such that traffic can not get in amongst the pack of racers. At the Wayne Elliot, there were also ample motorcycle officials doing an absolutely excellent job of policing the intersections and driveways, making sure that no cars unknowingly pulled out in front of or into the charging field. They would also pull up beside the pack and warn racers who were over the yellow line.
This became the defining factor of the race; motorcycle officials doing battle with yellow line violators, at times violently, d-bags still using the land to the left in order to advance in the field, the field yelling "yellow line" at said d-bags and so on. All of this fun culminated in the officials stopping the entire field a few laps from the end as we rolled hard through the start finish. This in and of itself was cause for concern as we were moving at a pretty good clip and not expecting to have a car stop in front of us. Nobody died though and we all got an earful from the officials, rightly so.
Personally, I rode the gutter all day, which is where I usually ride but especially when there is a big field and the road has lots of crappy pavement on the side of the road. Most people won't ride through the junk, so the pack tends to swing left, which means the right is frequently opening up and allowing advancement if you can handle doing so through the broken pavement. Mind you, this pavement wasn't full of landmines, just chopped up. Still fine. I also like having the ditch as an escape route, much more so than dealing with the threat of oncoming traffic. I'm fine with riding off the road into the dirt though, as long as I can avoid the mailboxes, of course.
We were allowed to proceed with a stern warning and things were better, until of course we caught the women's field on a bumpy, narrow road with parked cars on the side that really wasn't narrow enough to pass on. To compound this, the women didn't fully get the idea of being neutralized and instead of singling up their 12 person field, remained multi-abreast across the lane, forcing us to skinny up madly and squeeze by as the head of the pack attacked like crazy toward the one real hill of the entire course. On a separate note, just before the field catch, we first caught Cathy, right in the corner before the start. She had been shelled off the back of the women's group and I sadly feared the worst for her. The truth is another story that I'll let her tell.
The rest of the race was pretty tame, with a couple of attacks that got re-absorbed a couple of which I went for but it was clear that this was going to be a negative race, where nothing got away. With two to go I found myself at the front after the downhill and did some time in the wind, mildly, through the start/finish area, around the big corner and up the main hill. The pack was content to rest at that point and I just wanted to be clear of the mayhem for a bit. There was one good solo attack by the Embrocation team on the final lap. This remained out front for a couple of miles while an Embrocation rider that I didn't know proceeded to literally block for his teammate by riding at the front and swerving left to right toward riders that he saw coming up. He came into me multiple times, to the point where I, a generally timid person, was ready to ride next to him and warn that the next time he did it, I was going after his family. Shortly there after JB decided to chase the break down going up the hill and the pack charged ahead with the front full of Embro guys looking to slow the advance on their teammate. Toward the top of the hill the advance slowed so I used my momentum to come up beside and finish the surge and catch off, for absolutely no good reason at all, which is my standard M.O.
The pace was brisk but not brutal toward what was sure to be the bunch, long downhill, sprint finish of death. There was one other break of a few people that was re-absorbed just before the downhill. The course finish was about a hundred meters of flat preceded by 100 meters of gentle up that was preceded by 500 meters of 5% grade downhill. This translated to a big group of guys who had been mostly sitting in all race fighting to get to the front on a 40 plus MPH downhill.
I believe that the straw which broke the official's back was this very same, long, downhill, death finish sprint. I made sure I was in the top 20 or so near the front to try and, well, survive. Unfortunately as we really started rolling down the hill, about a half mile from the finish, I noticed many more racers amassing toward the front. Odd given that there were riders blocking the entire lane that we had at that point. It seems people decided that there was a whole other lane with nobody in it and that it would be a reasonable idea to come up by using that open lane to the left rather than fighting it out with all of those racers plugging up the right lane. This meant that lots of people were charging to the front way too soon and then blowing up and slipping back through the field. I'm in the gutter feathering the brakes so as not to ride up onto the guy that is inches in front of me. We're all doing over 40 mph, which normally isn't a problem but when shoulder to shoulder and riding the thin real-estate to the right of the white line it becomes disconcerting. John M. was right in front of me until he started making moves like a man less than half his age. The final 100 yards to the finish was a mass of blown riders who started their sprint a little early but were now setting up and drifting backwards. I survived and for that, I was grateful.
I'm sort of bummed that they didn't just yank the people who were breaking the rules then and there as I do still think that it was by in large 10% or less of the total that were generally the problem. The officials said they had a hard time seeing the right pinned numbers from the left, which I can certainly understand. I say just tell the guy, "you're out" and send him packing then and there, rather than punish everyone. If they don't leave, they get suspended for some amount of time. Clearly 99 guys were not at fault, though with the finish the way it was, all bets are off with respect to who and how many broke the rules. It is what it is though and I don't fault the promoters or the race officials. In general I thought the support and organization was excellent. This will, however, certainly make me think twice before I pay my own money to "race" when I have no control as to whether or not I will be scored in the end, regardless of my performance. I'm not a gambler and want no part of Bike Race Roulette, at least not as long as I'm paying the fees, buying the equipment and taking the risks.