Thursday, May 28, 2015

Snake Alley Criterium M35+ and Cat 3 Recap

I raced Snake Alley for the first time this past weekend.

For those not in the know, Snake Alley is a limestone and blue barclay brick climb with 8 switchbacks up a very steep hill in in Burlington, Iowa. It's been labeled the crooked street in the world:

In the 1940s, writer Robert L. Ripley saw the street in person, and decided to add it to his Ripley's Believe It, Or Not! column, calling it "The Crookedest Street in the World". The idea was novel enough; however, San Francisco's Lombard Street beats it by several turns. The turns on Snake Alley are sharper though, giving it a total of 1100° of turning from end to end, where Lombard Street's straighter curves total only 1000°.
The setting makes for a unique race course that is quite challenging. Even after reaching the top of the snake, the race continues with a harrowing descent with three 90° turns, followed by a flat technical section that returns to the start/finish line.

They say you have to have legs of steel to climb the snake, but an iron will to descend it.

Anyway, I raced the Masters 35+ in the morning, and then doubled up in the Cat 3 race in the afternoon. I did well in both, finishing second in both races.

Both races had close finishes. In the masters race, winner Michael Gibson (Stages Cycling) opened up a gap on the 12th and final climb just large enough to stay away. Jim Cochran and I sprinted for second, and we nearly caught Gibson in the process. In our sprint, I was momentarily overtaken by Cochran, but I was able to dig one last time, then execute a well-timed bike throw at the line to take the sprint.

A couple hours later came the cat 3 race. Although I was pre-registered for it, I nearly skipped it on account that I lacked the motivation to pin a number on a second time, and wondered how my legs would fare after an additional 15 times up the hill (27 total). In fact, only 20 minutes before the race, I was still sitting on the hill in street clothes, wondering aloud to teammate Lucas Marshall if I would regret not racing as we watched the cat 4 race go by. When that race concluded, I walked up the hill to the car. My legs felt good enough, and I decided at that moment to kit up and race.

The official was giving the 15 second warning as I arrived at the starting line. I had just enough time to line up at the back of the pack when the whistle blew. I quickly checked-in with the officials, then got on the chase. My legs felt great immediately. I passed a bunch up the first hill, and even more on the descent. Much of the same occurred on the second lap. By the time I was heading for the third pass, a group of five was beginning to separate from the pack. I jumped up to this group, which proved to be the winning split. From there, attrition over the next ten laps slowly whittled the group down from six to five, to four and then to three with a only few laps to go. On the penultimate climb, the eventual winner, Andrew Schmidt (Hincapie Development) launched a massive attack up the snake. I dug deep to follow, but he managed to gap me off a bit, so much so that I had to attack on the downhill to catch back on. He nearly buried me in the process, but in doing so, we separated ourselves from third. From there, it was a cat-and-mouse game up the snake the final time, through the descent, and to the final sprint, where he just out-sprinted me at the line.

Of course, I would have liked to have won at least one of those two races that I was in contention for, but I can hardly complain about the outcome. It was good racing. Exhilarating, I might add. Certainly, it was one of my best performances till date.

Obviously, this course suited my style of racing. It plays out much like a cyclocross race, where there's a sprint for the hole shot, punchy climbs that favor torque power, and corners that test one's technical skills. As such, it has already become my favorite criterium course.

image taken from a handlebar video posted to youtube

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