Downers Grove preview
I caught some grief last month when I declared the Chicago Criterium the best race our region has to offer. Several people made a strong argument for Downers Grove, and although I'm not ready to retract my claim, in retrospect I'll concede some hometown bias. Indeed, Downers Grove is about as good as it gets for both racers and race fans.We get two hot days of action, professionally managed by Special Events Management, which also handled Chicago and the Tour of Elk Grove. National championship jerseys are available only to Cat 1 men, pro men and pro women, but anyone who wins this weekend will get to spend 2010 being recognized as "the one who won Downers last year." Most race glory is fleeting and is forgotten by the next week, but Downers Grove's sticks around. Expect the races to be fast, wild and woolly on this figure-8 course. This is a very technical circuit, so it's crucial to be up front and out of danger. One can get through these turns without braking up front where it's single-file, but in the bunch it can be a mess. And in the lower categories, the accordion at the back will squeeze you a mournful dirge as you fade into a DNF. Because of the turns, climbs and wide talent disparity, it won't take long for the 5's races to splinter. Keep an eye on the gaps and always be ready to jump across. And if you fall off the pace, don't be surprised if officials pull you from the course. With the exception of the occasional late-race flier, breaks rarely succeed. Count on bunch sprints in just about every race. If you haven't seen it already, find a way this week to watch "Race Day," a training video that Robbie Ventura (Vision Quest) shot from within the 2005 masters race. It's a fun way to preview the course. Someday someone should make a video for how to survive the “race before the race,” a spectacle that at Downers Grove is as pivotal as it is absurd. It isn't unusual for racers to abandon their warm-ups and start crowding the barriers 20 minutes before their race.
A few notes about the course: Turn 1: The best way to do well is to get to the front and stay there. This starts from the gun. Fortunately you've been practicing your clip-in. Once you're near the front, defend your position and jump on opportunities to move up. And don't shy away from taking a pull. Indeed, keeping the race fast can be a key to staying up front, lest the pace slow and you get swarmed. Between Turns 2 and 3: Here's a long, shallow climb. If there's room, it's a great spot to make up some ground. Keep an eye out for people moving up the sides and grab them for a free ride. Between Turns 3 and 5: At Turn 4 there's a short, steep kicker. It can be a good launchpad for attacks. One can also advance positions on the wide, fast descent between Turns 4 and 5, but the trick is slotting back into the pack by the time you get to Turn 5, an obtuse angle that can be taken super fast. You don't want to have to create your own line and risk running out of room. (And you don't want to be the jerk who bombs the inside because he got greedy and careless.) Turn 5: On the last lap and on any big prime laps, the pack may bunch up ahead of this turn. Nobody wants to be in the wind too early, and some will still be recovering from the climb. You can exploit this hesitation by jumping hard. Don't even look back to see if you're clear. Ride it like you stole it and there's a chance you'll stay away for the final kilometer. Not a good chance, but a chance, and even if you fail, this can be a good way to create opportunities for your team's sprinter. Between Turns 7 and 8: Turn 7 is slightly less than 90 degrees with some street furniture on the far side, so don't take Turn 7 too wide. Depending on the wind, you'll probably want to ride up the right side, however, so you can get the right apex at Turn 8 and to block people from charging up that side. Turn 8: From the last corner it's 150 meters to the finish line. Good luck! There's a climb through the start/finish area, so take care to not be overgeared coming out of Turn 8. If it's the last lap, you're going to want to be first or second coming into the turn. Keep in mind that you'll be going faster on the last lap, so you might not be able to take the same line as on other laps
Have fun, ride safe and stick around for all the weekend's races. Sunday's pro races are always spectacular. There's not a dull spot on the course, but I recommend the bleachers at Turn 7 for the best end-of-race spectating. At the elite level, the true sprint will take place between Turns 6 and 7 as sprinters try desperately to be the first onto Main Street. From that corner you can see all the action develop down Curtiss Street and then watch as someone raises their arms in triumph 150 meters up the road.