Seven years ago, The Chris Thater Memorial crit up in Binghamton, NYwas the first “big crit” I ever raced in. Not coincidentally, it was also the first time I was ever violently crapped out the back of a field. I always return to Thater looking for a little redemption for that day, and hoping to leave the field through the front door.
My first edition of Thater was a little traumatic. As a newly-minted cat2, I was nervous to be lining up against not just all the cat1′s I knew of, but also several full pro teams I’d only ever seen on cyclingnews. The call-ups, the blaring music, the crowd, and the “race before the race” to get a good starting position, all of which I barely even notice at this point, were exciting but also intimidating to someone who had raced mostly 6am NYC park races and the occasional road race in the middle of nowhere.
I started toward the back, and only got shuffled farther and farther from the front with each corner, going deeper into the red on every straight trying to regain the spots I was losing. The course punishes even experienced, strong riders for inefficient riding, with a fast, downhill second corner that funnels the field into a narrow line and demands that you stay on the gas, as close as possible to the wheel in front of you. I knew none of this, and it certainly didn’t come naturally; I was on the side of the road after probably all of 10 laps, watching with dejected amazement as the fast guys ripped around the course.
Crit racing is still not my favorite thing in the world, but I’ve come to appreciate it and even enjoy it in small doses, and I’ve certainly gotten better at it (at least, relative to where I started). I’ve done tons of crits at this point and I’ve realized I’ll never be the slickest guy through the corners, but I do enjoy the game – picking the lines, finding the spots to grab a few positions, and embracing the contrast between the violent, full-out efforts and the need to completely stop pedaling and conserve energy whenever possible. It’s also nice to race in front of people and not just trees.
This year’s edition of Thater was held on the short course usually reserved for the category races. With a shorter hill and two fewer corners, this course is fast and not very technical, so it seemed doomed to yield a sprint finish – unfortunate, given the monotonous way that the NCC races have played out this year, and also because Thater is usually an interesting and physically demanding race with an element of unpredictability. Without a true field sprinter in the race, the Stans NoTubes p/b Proferrin team strategy was essentially “get off the front.” With the speed high and the moves unlikely to survive, I figured I’d ride as comfortably as possible in the field, saving it until an opportunity to get to the front with minimal effort presented itself, and then attacking with as much still in the tank as possible. It would probably be a suicide move, but hopefully at least would earn some camera time.
Through the race, teammates John Loehner (1971 Chris Thater Champion), Brian Hill and Ryan Mele all spent time off the front in moves that never seemed to get a comfortable enough gap to settle in. I watched and waited until the last half hour, when three guys had gone up the road and there was a lull in the pace on the finishing stretch with 16 to go. I moved up the inside into second position behind former teammate and current bro John Minturn of BikeReg, and after Minturn accelerated out of the first corner, I jumped around him and took the hill out of the saddle, as hard as possible. I took a look under my shoulder to see one of the bigger United Health Care guys on my wheel.
After a lap of chasing, I moved aside for a moment to see if the UHC rider might want to pull through, given that we were well off the front and gaining on the trio ahead, which contained only one true danger man in Mike Chauner of the Quebecois Garneau squad. I wasn’t surprised when the UHC rider stayed behind me, though, so I gave up on the notion of sharing and went back to work, realizing that this would almost certainly be for nothing other than a few laps of excitement; UHC was clearly sticking to its usual plan of marking and sitting on moves and putting its real firepower into the sprint.
Still, this was my moment in the race, so I made the best of it. I pushed out the watts until we reached the group, and then got into the rotation. We were quickly joined by another few guys, including two UHC guys who were either sitting in or not putting much into the move, so the rhythm was never great. I took a few big pulls up the hill, feeling pretty good and enjoying the speed of the escape, and I have to admit that when we still had 20 seconds with 7 to go, I felt a glimmer of hope.
With 5 to go, I hadn’t looked back in a few minutes and was surprised to see Chauner attack up the hill – I figured he’d attack, but this seemed too early. But he was one of the strongest in the group, so I reacted. When I looked back as we rounded the corner over the top, though, I saw why he’d gone – we were caught. Mountain Khakis had missed the move and chased. With the UHC train assembled and waiting in the wings, it was pretty clear how the rest of the race would play out. The sprint trains gradually swept around us and the speed ramped up, and UHC went on to its customary 1-2 finish. They are certainly good at what they do.
Our boy Chase Goldstein finished in the money in the dash to to line, finishing as the 3rd NY state resident and earning bronze in the state crit championship in the process – his first Chris Thater race certainly went much better than mine did seven years ago, so maybe he’ll be vying for more than just camera time in the coming years.
Thanks, and see you next year, Binghamton.