Monday, June 20, 2016

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Snake Alley Recap

This past Memorial day weekend I raced the Pro 1-2 race at Snake Alley in Burlington Iowa. Built by German immigrants in 1894, "Snake Alley" features 1100 degrees of turning while climbing the 60 feet at a 21% grade. The road was intended to be a shortcut to the main street below in Burlington, with bricks being laid at an angle to allow horses better footing as they descended. It's also been the setting for a unique bicycle criterium race for the past 34 years.

I raced this event for the first time last year. Later that evening, I watched the Pro 1-2 race with anticipation of racing it with the big boys this year. The Pro 1-2 field's size was larger (100+) and longer (5+) laps than any race I did. It also had a steep attrition rate, with officials culling nearly half of the field after five of 20 laps, and then gradually pairing it down to the top 20 with about five to go.

When planning my 2016 season, Snake Alley got an "A" race designation. I worked with my coach, Mark Savery, to focus on very specific high-intensity intervals to mimic the up-over-down-and-around required at this race. Several weeks of these painful efforts helped my mind and body adapt to the stress of racing Snake Alley.

Over several months, I also moderated my diet by waging a war on added sugars, placing myself on ice cream and beer embargoes, and only allowing extra carbs to pre-load before long workouts or races. The results: I haven't seen this weight since high school.

Since Snake Alley seeds riders by order of registration, I made sure to sign up early. I was assigned bib #20. Having a low starting number on this course increases one's chance of staying up near the front at the start of the race, which is important considering the half of the field would be whistled off the course within 15 minutes.

The Race
The start was like a cyclocross race, full-bore from the whistle. Despite being in the fourth row, and getting a good start, the outsides swarmed inward and I got pushed back to about 35-40th position by the time we entered the snake. We rode three abreast going up the blue-clay bricks, which required full concentration to manage holding position, adjusting for speed to keep from overlapping wheels, and keeping an eye up the hill for trouble.

After exiting the snake, I put in a few extra pedal strokes to accelerate past those who sat up after cresting the hill. Then came the first harrowing descent over some of the *finest* Midwest concrete, which includes two off camber 90 degree turns, and a final turn at the bottom where cracks and broken concrete are tagged with neon-orange spray paint in several places. All this, while descending at 38 mph, in traffic. By the way, these precious seconds of descent also double as the only recovery section on the course, so don't forget to relax and enjoy the view.

After exiting the descent, a flat headwind required ramping up the power once more through three 90 degree turns, then a false-flat to the 200m straight-away to the start/finish. As we approached the start/finish, I shifted into the small ring and spun up the cadence to get up the hill efficiently while accelerating around others mashing it.

The next few laps were pretty much the same. Then around lap five, a couple of riders got tangled up on the snake a few places ahead of me. The ensuing chaos resulted in snapping the string of riders in several places. I was sitting pretty far back and had to get to work, or risk being pulled. Over the next several laps, I moved up by passing one or two at a time.

I made a final move to secure my spot in the selection with about ten to go. At that point, one rider was in a solo breakaway, I could see the main chase group of about dozen on the snake itself, and another medium sized group approaching its mouth. I escaped my group by punching it up the first hill and entering the snake at full steam. I stayed on the gas while climbing the cobbles, catching the second chase pack as they were exiting the top. As soon as we exited the snake, our group split into two as I watched the first three ride away. I was gassed and had to sit on for a bit to recover. From there, it was a race of attrition to the finish, where I ultimately crossed the line 20th uncontested and feeling both relieved and elated.

For many, finishing 20th wouldn't be much to write home about. Not me. I spent a lot of time and energy preparing for this race. This goal stretched me. I worked for it, and as a result, it gives me a lot of personal satisfaction in achieving it.

Here's to season's goals. May you get yours.


photo: Big Country 1031