Bike Racing 101: Skyway Classic

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In its 11th year running, Skyway Classic (formerly Gapers Block) marks the beginning of road season in Chicago. This particular criterium course—shy of a mile around and marketed as beginner-friendly—isn’t too technical: i.e. there are just 4 turns in a soft rectangular shape. The most technical part of the course is avoiding coned-off potholes and predictable curbs…and of course, pack riding.

Let me back up, though: a criterium is a fast-paced circuit race, where the looped course is ridden for a pre-determined amount of time. After the race begins, a manual counter after each lap shows you how many laps are left. Strategy and patience/instinct are highly rewarded; the fastest rider or the one who leads early is often not the one who wins, though sometimes, a small group gets away from the pack (most of these attempts are caught).  A bell rings as riders enter the final lap—the pace picks up, excitement grows, and most often, the race is won on a sprint in the final 100 meters, upwards of 30mph.

Strategic pack riding and handling is an essential racing skill, one that is developed primarily through experience. Because mastering the sport requires experience that you can’t (or shouldn’t) shortcut, cycling is split up into categories (“cats”) rather than by, say, age groups. Everyone enters as a “Cat 5” and races others of their like category. As race requirements and upgrade points (awarded for placement) are met, riders are able to upgrade, or “cat up.”

Skyway only offers Cat 4 and 5 races; each race is about 30 minutes long and is often comprised of first-timers. The low maintenance vibe generates a level of accessibility not always found in the sport, and the four-evening span provides the opportunity to come back and fix what could have gone better while it’s fresh, with the same group of people. The pressure of taking a corner too wide, or too slow and getting dropped is alleviated, wrapped in a community of support.

It’s a breeding ground for learning experiences and timing experiments, both for those who spend too much time on the front of the pack, depleting energy and getting passed by patient riders in the final sprint…and others who wait too long or find themselves positioned too far back in the pack to contend. And for everyone, it’s a great check-up on training and an opportunity to push limits and see hard offseason work pay off.

I raced the Women’s Cat 4 event which ran together with the W5. The field was a great mix of strong new riders, as well as some with a year or two of experience who led the way in communication (calling out potholes, attacks, and lapped riders). After racing our first Skyway together last year, I again found a strong alliance in my friend Molly (winner of the W5 series) and had fun pushing myself taking turns on the front. As mentioned, too much time on the front is not a winning strategy, and it did not pay off as well for me in the W4 sprint, finishing 4thand 5th in my races.

It’s a competitive race; because the lead pack of women moves at 22-23mph, you’ll find that most riders have excellent etiquette to promote safety. After all, despite what clubs we ride for, we’re all on the same team. As is common with an early season race, it was chilly…especially as the sun goes down. Access to the warm fieldhouse before and after is a great perk of this event, but Half Acre was organized and quick with results after each race.

Races are largely grassroots efforts hosted by local teams. Half Acre Cycling is the team behind Skyway Classic, the race where it all began for many Chicago area racers.

This coming Sunday, BFF Bikes is providing another beginner-friendly day of racing at Blackhawk Farms Raceway in South Beloit, complete with swag bags for first-timers, a raffle, and a free skills clinic led by Chicago Women’s Elite Cycling following the Women’s 4/5 race.  If you’re curious about bike racing, on-site registration for this can’t-miss event is available from 7 a.m. until 30 minutes before each event.

P.S: These events require a road bike—TT bikes and aero bars are not permitted.

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