The Chainlink

Race Report: Gapers Block Criterium

Photo courtesy of Kate Christenson

For Chicago-area riders looking to get their feet wet at road racing, the annual Gapers Block Criterium, hosted by Half Acre Cycling, is a "can't miss" event.

The four-day race series takes place each spring at Calumet Park. Each night features a Category 5 men's race, a Category 4 women's race, and finally a Category 4/5 men's race.

Awards are offered for podium finishes in individual races, as well as an "omnium" prize for racers who accumulate the most points over the course of fours days of racing.

More importantly, the series format offers a chance for newer racers to accumulate up to eight starts under their belts over the course of one week. This is quite advantageous because it allows riders to quickly learn from mistakes, experiment with different tactics, and apply things they've learned without having to wait a week or more between events. It's also helpful for racers looking to quickly accumulate "upgrade points" allowing them to progress to a higher category.

Despite threatening weather conditions and an election night, the 2015 edition of the race was once again a resounding success. To help us recap, Half Acre Cycling's Jennah Dunham, and BFF Racing's Jennifer Kosatka and Julie Yeagle were kind enough to provide race reports.

Jennah Dunham:
“Crits are absolutely terrifying, yet incredibly exhilarating. You never know what to expect. You have to trust yourself and the wheel in front of you…” - Some wise person. Oh, wait, those were my last words to Michelle Moore (SpiderMonkey) before toeing the line at the Tour of Galena Crit last June.

Let’s rewind to last road season for a moment, I had incredibly high expectations for myself. I wanted so badly to earn my Cat 3 upgrade and test my limits as a rider. The hours of indoor winter training were insufferable, but I could see progress and was itching to get outside and race my heart out. But, that’s just it, I didn’t race with heart, per my team Half Acre Cycling’s motto. I was constantly frustrated with my performance early season, burnt out and lost sight of the why? The Tour of Galena was my last ditch effort to pull myself out of this funk, but alas, my attitude and perspective were not on point. After a mediocre time-trial and a wrong turn on the road race, I was furious, disappointed and irritated. I brought these emotions into the crit and was hell-bent to nab a spot on the podium. So, what’d I do as the whistle blew? Attacked - hard and strong, but for no other reason than to redirect my perceived failures into turning myself inside out and finding some sort of redemption. As the lap counter decreased, I felt on top of the world and was having the race of my life. Now, please refer to those wise words some twenty-something, amateur cyclist mentioned just before this race. Got it? Good. Alright, here’s the plot-twist, all of this anger-driven, passionless racing ended abruptly. My intensity and hyper-focus caused me to lose sight of everything that was happening so quickly around me with a few laps to go. I completely missed my cue from Kelsey Phillips (SpiderMonkey) that she was coming to pull for me. She wanted for me to come out on top of this race and conserve my leg power for that final lap. Our wheels clipped and I pummeled into the pavement.

When I came to on Commerce St., I knew the crit and the remainder of the road season was over. The crash, fractured clavicle and ulna, and grueling recovery process challenged me to intentionally shift my perspective and rediscover the why? The 8 weeks off*, er not racing, the bike only rekindled my love to be on two-wheels.
*Disclaimer: Let’s use “off” loosely. I am stubborn. I rode my bike. Sorry, doc, but kudos for that removable splint.

My partner-in-crime, Eric Holm (Half Acre Cycling), constantly reminds me, “If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point?” As simple as it is, he’s completely right. Last season, I took myself entirely way too seriously all because I wanted that upgrade and in case you haven’t figured it out I’m still rocking the W4s and learning immensely. As I mentally and physically prepared over the winter, I still found myself hesitant about the impending road season for a variety of reasons, but ultimately it was the fear of forgetting to actually enjoy racing. With that in mind, I only committed to a week of early season crits as a litmus test to determine if road racing was truly the discipline I wanted to pursue this year.

Gapers Block Criterium Series was the best way to put the ol’ gams to work for four consecutive days. The primary goal for this series was to simply have a blast on my humble steed, Cady the Cannondale. Now, don’t get me wrong, finishing in the top of the field would be a plus too, but that wasn’t the stimulus.

Day 1:
The e-mails between the beloved “Half-Monkey” women were firing throughout the day discussing one another’s strengths, strategizing tactics and crossing our fingers that we could make some magic happen in the field. I eagerly counted down the minutes to flee the office and slow roll down to Calumet Park to execute our plan of attack.

The whistle blew and a field of strong women were off. The excitement was high and I was watching the group like a hawk trying to determine who might make an early move. Our pseudo-composite team sought to control the front of the field and dictate the pace in order to eventually launch attacks throughout the 30 minutes. Rockstar, Kelly Clarke (SpiderMonkey), attacked and rode solo for a handful of laps. As she sped off, the rest of our crew immediately fell into place and blocked in an effort to maintain and even slow down the pace. The cohesion and communication between our group was thrilling. It is moments such as these that allow me to fall in love with this sport repeatedly.

The finish came down to a sprint with Lauren Meeth of PSIMET taking the win, Emily Beswick of SpiderMonkey in second and me pushing across the line in third. Oh, sprints, they’ll be the death of me. You mean I’ve been exerting a hard effort for 30 minutes and now you want an explosive effort out of the saddle?! Um, yeah, I’ll keep my butt glued where it’s at. Okay, so that’s not the right response...good thing I had three more days to even attempt to mimic Lauren’s sprint.

Team “Half-Monkey” - Emily Beswick (2nd place), Jennah Dunham (3rd), and Michelle Moore (4th) on Day 1. Playing bikes is always better in the company of great friends (photo courtesy of Emily Beswick)

Day 2:
I was still on an adrenaline rush from yesterday’s performance and anxious to have another go at the course. The plan was to sit in and feel out the group for a few laps and go with the flow. Well, I quickly realized that my legs were fresh, antsy and ready to push the pace. As we were rolling into our second lap, I saw Lauren on my left and mumbled something along the lines of, “I’m going and you’re coming with. Get ready.” Thankfully, she listened, followed my lead and we pedaled off the front for the remainder of the race.
It was incredible working with such a talented cyclist as we rotated pulls, managed to drop chasers and eventually sprint to the finish. Again, she had me with that sprint, but second place still felt wonderful. I promised myself that I would get out of that darned saddle by the end of the week.

On day two, Lauren Meeth and Jennah Dunham executed a race-winning breakaway (photo courtesy of Kate Christensen)

Day 3:
Third time’s a charm, so they say. At the line, I told myself to be patient, wait, sit in, and relax. My brain was the voice of reason; however, my legs kaboshed that plan entirely after a lap and a half. For some strange and idiotic reason, I trusted my spry thunder thighs and attacked for a solo breakaway on the straightaway and time-trialed the rest of the race. Fortunately, the pack could not get organized to chase me down in part to my stellar teammate, Ashley Heidenreich’s, blocking efforts. I managed a solid rhythm with pacing myself for those grueling solo laps. Deep down I knew I could hold my own, so I just threw my head down and pedaled through the pain. The effort I expended was invigorating. I’d never felt that continuity between my drive, body and was sheer bliss.

Day 4:
The final night of the series and exhaustion was catching up with me. My teammate, Katie Casey, and I were on the front of the pack and driving the pace for a few laps. Soon enough, I found myself in an unideal position, stuck at the front, wasting energy and pulling the field around the course.
The group stayed close together throughout the race and it was an unfamiliar scenario based on the previous nights. It was challenging to read riders and escape the front, but I could sense that my power or lack there of wouldn’t sustain an attack. I couldn’t burn all my matches because the finish was undoubtedly ending in a field sprint. I channeled my inner Jens Voigt and said, “Shut up legs” as I laid on the gears, stood up and got out of my saddle to sprint for second. That alone was a little victory, but I still have a lot of learning and practice ahead of me to perfect that aggressive sprint position.

Aside from dusting off the legs, the four days at Gapers was an incredible learning experience and solid way to commence the season.  Moreover, each day highlighted the why for me. Sure, I had individual successes, but racing shouldn’t only be about standing on the podium. It’s a culmination of celebrating one another’s accomplishments that range from earning a win, getting out of your comfort zone, finishing your first crit, strategizing with teammates, taking risks, building new relationships and above all having fun. It’s the supportive environment of the cycling community that has allowed me to thrive on and off the bike. I am eager to plot out my race calendar and lay down all of the happiness watts this season.

Two of our intrepid race reporters - Jennah Dunham and Jennifer Kosatka - on the podium for the Gapers Block Criterium "Omnium," which tallies results over all four races (photo courtesy of Katie Isermann).

Jennifer Kosatka:
Going into Gapers Block, I did not really know what to expect. I had raced a few crits at the end of last road season, but after a long winter, those seemed like they were ages ago… Realizing I had a very long week ahead of me, I packed all of my gear and loaded my car the night before, and despite the early mornings, long commute, chilly weather, and the remnants of a stubborn cold, I was determined to race all 4 days.

Calumet Park is a really nice race venue with pretty views of the lake and lots of green spaces. Another huge plus is that racers can find refuge from the elements inside the large field house that is located right by the start/finish line… The only two words I really need to mention here are: indoor bathrooms. The series was really well organized, and everyone volunteering was very helpful, welcoming, and enthusiastic about hosting us “newbies” as we tested out our racing legs – some of us for the very first time.

The first day had a really great turnout. 30 racers lined up for the Women Category 4 race. I recognized many familiar faces (since many were my teammates – BFF Bikes accounted for 15 of the 30 racers!) but there were also several ladies I recognized from the previous race season, group rides, and winter training. Racers that already had a few races under their belts came to support the first timers, and in general, we had a very smooth and successful first race. Spider Monkeys and Half Acre deployed some team tactics, and it was really awesome to see everyone react to and counter the various attacks. At one point, Spider Monkeys sent one rider off the front, who sustained a gap for quite a bit of time. The girls at the head of the pack (including my teammate, Lauren, who was racing for the first time) did a great job picking up the pace, and eventually the strong head wind forced the lone rider back into the pack. For the rest of the race, the group stayed together… which made for a field sprint coming out of the last corner. I didn’t have the best position going into that corner and ended up with a 5th place finish.

Day two started nice and easy. After two laps at a relatively kind pace, two riders went off the front. By the time it registered in my mind that these were two ladies that could definitely sustain a break, they already had a 30 yard gap. I went off the front to try to chase them down… but I was alone. I chased for about 3 laps, until I finally accepted that they were gone. The group had broken up considerably by then, and a chase group of 3 was gaining on me. As they caught up, I was happy to see that my teammate, Annicka, was one of the riders. She called for me to hop on her wheel, but I had used so much energy, I couldn’t stick. I fell back into the group behind me, and was thrilled to see that it was mostly my teammates. They were fantastic, and let me sit in as I tried to recover as much as I could for a few more laps. Towards the end of the race, the large gaps narrowed to smaller gaps, and I was tempted to try and catch back up to Annicka’s group. I put myself back out there in the wind, tucked my head down, and told myself that it will all be over in a couple of laps. I gained some ground, but not enough, and I finished shortly behind the chase group (6th). I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I won a prime during that race, as I was with the main group when the bell was rung, but was fighting my way though the gap when I passed the start/finish line… So now I will be enjoying a very nice Colavita pasta dinner in the near future!

Day three we switched the direction of the race. Instead of riding the course counter clockwise, we all lined up and rode in the opposite direction. Coming into this race, my strategy was to stick on the wheel of the girl who had won day one and two. If I could successfully do this, I had a shot at a podium finish, and being on her wheel meant I would already be in the right place if she decided to break away again. (This was massively preferable to the suffering I put myself through while trying to chase her down the day before.) Once again, the race started at a reasonable pace, and I stayed focused on my target wheel… The only flaw in my plan was that the other racer who had broken away with the first place finisher the day before had the legs (and the courage) to do it again. She went off the front early, and when we realized that she was not coming back, tried to organize a chase group. There was a lot of good advice given… but attempting to organize a high-speed, fluid, rotating pace line on the fly with racers that may have never experienced such a thing, proved to be a difficult task. Confusion and fear of being the person “doing too much work” eventually lead to a breakdown of that effort, and the pack had to accept that we were racing for second place. We stuck together for the rest of the race, and found ourselves in another field sprint after the final corner. I started my sprint WAY too early, forgetting in the moment just how long that final stretch was. As my legs were about to burn up, I was passed by the wheel I was supposed to be following… and finished just a hair in front of my teammate, Kelsey, who had a hugely impressive (and a way better timed) final sprint.

In addition to consistently high finishes throughout the week, Jennifer Kosatka (r) snagged a podium on day two (photo courtesy of Katie Isermann).

Going into the final day my body felt tired. I was preparing myself to just “race my best” and not be disappointed if “my best” wasn’t very impressive. Well, all that changed when the omnium standings were posted. To my surprise (and slightly to my horror) I was tied for 3rd place. When I did the math, there was nothing I could really do to finish above 3rd place, and there wasn’t much risk that I could finish lower than 4th place... it all came down to a head to head race between me and the girl I was tied with – no matter who else I raced or where I finished, the only influencing fact was that I had to get my front wheel to the finish line before she did. I sent a quick email out to my team letting them know the situation… and the encouragement and support I received back was overwhelming. Being a brand new team, there is a huge desire to show up and represent strong. We don’t have Category 1 or 2 racers just yet… we have to develop into that… and I know how exciting a podium finish is for us, regardless of category, because it reinforces the idea that we can do it! That being said, I knew I had to show up and give it everything I had left. My strategy was to be on the wheel of the girl I was tied with, and stay there no matter what. The pack stuck together, and my teammates were by my side, giving me the position and space I needed to be exactly where I should be the whole time. It all came down to the final sprint where I finished just inches before the racer I was tied with, securing 3rd place for the race, and 3rd place overall.

All in all, it was a fantastic week of races. I met so many awesome and wonderfully supportive people. I doubled my race experience in less than a week, and witnessed lots on impressive tactics and strategies. If I could give any new racer just one piece of advice it would be: “Do Gapers Block.” There is no substitute for race experience, and that is what you get with this race series. (And possibly some kick a$$ pasta and other exciting treats if you plan it right!) I’d like to give a big thank you to Half Acre Cycling for being so supportive and giving new racers this opportunity to develop their skills. I would also like to give another big thank you to my teammates who raced their hearts out, and gave me the support and encouragement I needed to get me on that final podium – you ladies are the best!

Julie Yeagle:
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”  I read that today, and though I’m usually unmoved by quotes, I found myself repeating it aloud because it captures perfectly my attitude towards racing.  Last year was my first year of competitive cycling, and I experienced little joy until I stopped playing the comparison game.  When I first started training, I measured myself against the athlete that I was 20 years and 60 pounds ago.  And when I began racing, I compared myself to everyone else in the field.  My first race was Gapers Block, and I got dropped before we hit the first turn.  My teenage self won most of the running races that she entered, and most of my competitors had no problem hanging with the pack at Gapers Block.  Needless to say, I was discouraged and humbled by my inability to match up with my comparators.

Julie Yeagle (in the pink arm warmers) leading the pack on the back stretch (photo courtesy of Kate Christensen).

After similar results at the next three races, I debated whether I should continue racing.  I was 36 and felt like the washed up townie who brags about what a great offensive lineman he was in high school.  Experienced cyclists assured me that I would improve, but none of them were ever as slow as I was, so I was skeptical.  It seemed inconceivable that I would ever race a crit without being dropped, and I didn’t know if my self-esteem could handle many more poor performances.

At that point, I decided to disregard my petulant ego and discontinue comparisons.  I was improving – hanging with the pack for one lap, and then two laps – and though the improvements were small and imperceptible to most people, they were measurable and they deserved to be celebrated.  So I celebrated my achievements, and looked forward to each new competition.  I had no impact on the outcomes of any races, but I started to understand the dynamics of crits and began to envision the racer I might become with more training and experience.

This year, I rolled up to the line at Gapers Block without comparison’s bridles.  My only goal was to race as if I belonged, and I succeeded.  I had a strong start and road in the front of the pack for about a third of the race before mounting an attack and losing steam.  My “attack” was brief and feeble, but it felt courageous and gleeful nonetheless.  Last year, even a feeble attack was unthinkable, so even though it didn’t stick (and probably made my competitors laugh), the act was so joyful.  I look forward to similar moments of joy this season, and for the rest of my racing career.

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