Thursday, October 11, 2012

2012 Elite National Championships

ADT Event Center, Home Depot Center, LA Velodrome-- whatever its name really is these days, this is a real track. Let me say that again: THIS is a REAL track! Man, I feel like I've been waiting to ride a track of this caliber my whole life: 250 meters, indoors, 45˚ in the bends, and made of glorious, glorious wood. Siberian pine, I'm told. Just a beautiful thing, cycling's equivalent of a Gothic cathedral. Perhaps this is over dramatic, but as I first stepped inside LA Velodrome, I really felt I was in church. No disrespect to my humble (and relatively nearby) Hellyer, but this was a different beast entirely.

Colorado Springs is a beautiful track as well, and given the altitude, measurably faster than LA. And they say LA is not even fast, for a wooden 250. I've even been told by some it's not faster than Hellyer (beg to differ...). And certainly the Japanese keirin tracks are beautifully engineered, each one of the dozen or so I've ridden with nearly identical, perfect transitions and banking ideally matched to the track length, as if they were all popped out of the same mold. 

But LA is different, it's one of those, the ones you see on the Olympics or World Cups or World Championships or on the YouTube vids of Fiedler vs. Chiappa that we trackie nerds pore over: An indoor, wooden 250 meter velodrome. The current state of the art, basically. Just look at this, with the flags of the nations hanging overhead, the high banks veering imperiously, the balustrade impossibly tall: Hushed tones only in here, please. Almost as if the long dead bodies of kings and obscure monks should be keeping silent and approving watch from underneath the infield stalls. Wouldn't want to wake them.

Ok, undoubtedly too dramatic again. But for real I've been looking forward to riding a track like this from the moment I became aware of track racing, and I really felt privileged to have the chance to ride here. For one thing, I'd be sharing the track with past and current US champions, members of Olympic, World Championship, World Cup and Pan Am Games teams-- the best riders in the country. This is after all the Elite National Championships we're talking about. Of course I hadn't a chance in hell of a placing! But just for a chance to ride the boards of LA I packed the family into a rented mini-van and braved the eight hours of hell on I-5. That, and for the In & Out Burger halfway.

And yes, I was coming all that way to race the kilo. Around sixteen hours or so on the road for a minute and change on the track. Logic? Sanity even? Probably not. This is racing, after all, and those things aren't found here.

Henry is into it!

I'd heard a lot of horror stories about riding LA. "It's really slippery!", "Special tires are necessary!", "You'll have to wipe your tires with alcohol any time you go out!", "Don't even let your tires touch the infield!", "You'll strike a pedal if you don't lean the bike away in the turns", "You'll fall your first time for sure!", stuff like that. And of course, the week before I left I got a flat on my rear track training wheel, that was naturally equipped with a "special" track tire, a Continental Steher. UPS bungled the rushed delivery of a replacement, and I found myself at LA with the decidedly un-special El Cheapo tire on my back-up clincher wheel to warm up on.

Thankfully I was pitted with Bobby Walthour, a guy who's got more track experience (and speed) in his pinky than I've got in my whole body. This is a guy whose grandfather and great grandfather were track world champions when cycling was bigger than baseball. I watched Bobby nonchalantly roll his borrowed tires (pumped up without a pressure gauge) through the dusty, perilous infield and onto that fearsome banking without an alcohol-soaked rag in sight. As I followed him around on the blue line, for the first couple of laps I kept expecting him to at least have a little slip or two. Nope, stuck like glue. I stopped obsessively wiping down my tires after that. Never had the slightest slip myself.

A wooden track is different to ride. It makes noise. It squeaks and creaks in different spots like a wooden floor (makes sense). It rumbles, too, when you're going fast, or when some riders go by doing an effort below you in the lane or above you at the rail. It had been a while since I'd ridden a 250 (the outdoor one in Japan), and the sense of verticality is definitely unique-- when you're on the blue, riders are above you and below you, there's a strange and fun feeling of being stacked up on top of each other. You can look to the right and have your eye level several feet below the high rider's tire, look to the left and you are six feet above the rider flying by underneath.

Silent as a tomb before morning warm-up.

Mercifully, warming up at Elites is nothing like the mad crush of warming up at Masters. When I arrived for warm up the first day there were four people in the building. Evidently, I was ridiculously early. Everyone was taking their time to get ready and the track was never that crowded. Refreshing. I did most of my warm up on the rollers in any case and then did just a few efforts on the track to get the feel for the turns. 

And the turns on a 250 are what it's all about. When you slam in there, you are IN it, not ON it, and you feel the g-forces really powerfully through the turn, it is truly fun stuff, like a roller coaster! Again, the steepness of the track means you don't really have to steer the bike at all, and it takes almost no effort to keep it right on the measurement line. So different from fighting the bike at Hellyer to keep from flying up the too-shallow banking. Heaven!

The next day was the race. Came in early again to find one other person in the building with me, and started calmly getting my business ready. I was the first rider off in my race, the elite kilo, but there were several other time trial categories before mine. Rollers, on the track for a few laps at the blue, three efforts, and back on the rollers. Ready.

Between Bobby and I and my friend Quinn Hatfield ( a local), we were keeping each other updated on how close it was to go time. Seemed all the time in the world, and I was just taking it easy, drinking a little, getting on the rollers every now and then.

"LAST CALL, DAVID BROEKEMA", boomed over the PA, where the hell was first call?! I scrambled off the rollers as fast as I could and up to the officials. "David?" "Yeah, I'm here" "Have you had your bike checked?" BIKE CHECK?? I hadn't seen it the day before and kinda guessed they weren't having one. "This is the national championships, of course there is a bike check", the official announced, stone-faced. Luckliy, La-La, a fellow Hellyerite, was already through bike check with my bike before I even knew what happened. Thanks, La-La!

Ok, deep breath. And my bike was loaded in the gate. At LA they use the official start gates that are keyed to release electronically with the countdown beeps, just like at the big international races. I've used them a few times as they're pretty common in Japan. But they are expensive, and unusual in the US so it had been a while. I'd actually spent a little time the day before listening to the countdown and figuring out exactly when the gate opened. It seemed to be opening just as the final tone sounded, not when the tone ended.

So I'm in the gate, I'm on my bike. "Thirty seconds", the official says. I get my straps tight. I'm not nervous, no time for it anyway with the confusion before the start. I hear the ten second beep. A few seconds of waiting, I focus my eyes on the middle of turn one, straight ahead, about five feet below the rail, check that my head is up. Five... , four... , three... , two... , one -I shift my hips back, then shoot them forward- ..., GO!!

I must have gone a nano-second early, as the gate jammed momentarily, then released me. No matter, I was off, good start other than catching the gate, good speed through the turn, I'm mindlessly accelerating standing down the back straight, slam back and sit entering turn three, into the aero bars smoothly. Right on the black line I'm clawing through the turn and continuing to accelerate down the home straight. One lap down and I'm at my cruising speed.

Lap two, I'm holding it steady, my feet feel light, quick and I'm nailing my line in every turn, this is easy! And this track feels fast. Just as in warm up, it feels as if someone is pushing me out of the turns and down the straights, beautiful, beautiful track, thank you! 500 meters, halfway and I'm feeling good, very good.

Lap three, still feel fast, but the legs are starting to tighten. Line still good, track still lovely, 750 meters one lap to go... , and I'm hurting, can't keep legs from slowing down, vision blurring, suddenly my saddle feels too low and I can't get power into the pedals, pain is building fast... , I'm in the last turn but I'm struggling to keep the bike on line, I nearly hit a sponge and over-correct coming high out of turn four..., just the final straight to go but it seems so far... , fighting to keep the pedals turning as they feel  mired in quickening concrete... , and  a final THROW for the line, I drop my head and drift uptrack.

                                                  [The last 500m, vid courtesy Paul Costuros]

I hear the announcement, "the time to beat, 1:10.368...". And I'm happy, I had no real expectations, but that is a very good time for me. The second best time I've done in the US, and probably within my top five best times ever. Not having been to this track before, I didn't know what to expect. I was afraid I'd just do what I'd been doing at Hellyer, a lowly 1:12, so this was a success. And- I wasn't last! My time left me 14th out of 20 competitors. I was genuinely afraid I'd be the slowest guy given the level of the competition. Therefore, happiness!

But I was by no means the fastest old guy. Bobby, 47, did a 1:08.811, which was actually something of a disappointment for him after setting an age-group world record with a at Colorado Springs this year. And Quinn, at a relatively advanced 40 years of age, actually managed to podium in fifth place with a staggering PB of 1:07.604-- old guy power!

Great experience. What a track! I can't stop thinking about it... . And another solid step up in my times and results. I'm now pretty much where I left off in Japan as far as my kilo times go, even though I'm on far, far less training time due to my fatherly duties. But no matter, I'm feeling good, and feeling motivated that I can go even faster next year. Bring on 2013!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! Definitely a moment when less time has more value. That last pic just before the video looks like a Hajime Kato painting.