RACE REPORT: SUNNY KING & NOVANT HEALTH CRITERIUMS
BY: Johnny Mitchell - Finish Strong Elite Cycling
Category 1 Racer
Home: Florence, South Carolina
The weekend of April 5th the Finish Strong Elite Team traveled to Anniston, Alabama for the Sunny King Criterium. Finish Strong had a team of four racing the NCC Pro 1 criterium, a team of four racing the Cat 2 criterium, and a team of two racing the Cat 3 criterium.
In the Cat 3 race, Micah Milne stayed attentive near the front the entire race, and with two laps remaining put in a HUGE attack. He quickly got eight seconds clear of the field. It looked like a brilliantly timed attack, but going up the final hill he ran out of steam and was caught by the field.
In the Cat 2 race, two guys got up the road, and the race was won! The real race was for third, back in the field. Finish Strong was represented by Hank Booth, Justin Meade, Carlos Norena, and Oscar Jimenez. Oscar had a bit of bad luck and was forced to drop out after being caught up behind a crash. On a course like this one (long downhill, long uphill), chasing was very difficult. Hank Booth was the picture of concentration, staying near the front with the help of Justin Meade pulling the train. He showed great poise in the end, and just missed the podium, finishing fourth (second in the field sprint). Carlos continues to improve and finished solidly in the field.
Finally, we came to the main event, the NCC race. For those that don't know, NCC stands for National Criterium Calendar. It might as well stand for "you're going to be in a lot of pain for far longer than a normal criterium." Our race was to be 60 laps. Yes, that means 60 times up and down the hill on the course! Finish Strong had Andrew Crater, Jake Hill, Parker Kyzer, and myself (Johnny Mitchell). Andrew had a call up, which means he got to start at the front of the race. Anyone that has seen these races knows how huge that is. The rest of us huddled together near the front of the non-called up riders. The race started as all NCC races do. SUPER FAST!!! The three of us in the middle of the field all said the same thing after the race. "I didn't think I was going to make it beyond 10 laps." While we were suffering a thousand deaths, Andrew was all over the front. He made several attacks off the front and even won a $200 prime (easily, I might add). Shortly thereafter, because of all his hard efforts, he was forced to drop out, succumbing to calf cramps. For the rest of us, it was survival! For me, personally, I made some wise equipment choices, and it paid dividends. Actually, I should say that Andrew made some wise equipment choices for me. He told me to ride the team wheels, with his special tire setup. That was the 50mm deep Superiorlite wheels with a 23mm tire on the front and a 25mm tire on the back. I have never felt more stable on a bike at such high speeds. The width of the Superiorlite wheels gives them an uncommon stiffness that was heavenly when accelerating. The 25mm rear tire made diving into the turns a breeze. All that, coupled with the stiffness of our KHS Flite Team bikes, made for no wasted energy going up that hill 60 times. In the end, Jake Hill finished in the money in 29th place. A fantastic result for someone so young in such a hard race. Parker and I finished inside the top 45. A little more than half the original 100 starters made it to the finish.
We all quickly turned our attention to the next weekend: The even more difficult Novant Health Invitational Criterium.
The Novant Health Invitational, until this year, was called the Presbyterian Invitational (or Presby for short). Presby is widely known as the richest, and most difficult crit in America. Richest because it offers $40,000 for the men's Pro 1 race. Most difficult because it is a two kilometer loop with eight turns. It is shaped like a dumbbell. You have a half mile straight with four turns at the end, followed by the same half mile straight coming back the other way with four turns at that end. The reason this makes it so difficult is, unless you are in the front of the race, you have to sprint down the half mile straight, slam on the breaks, sprint out of every corner, then sprint down the straight again. Try doing eight max effort sprints every few seconds for two hours. Difficult wouldn't begin to describe it! Finish Strong had Andrew Crater, Shane Braley, Jake Hill, Parker Kyzer, Hank Booth (who got his upgrade to Cat 1 for his efforts in Anniston), and myself. The plan, according to Andrew, was to get to the front to avoid the pitfalls of being in the rear of 140 of the fastest cyclists in the country. Andrew is better at getting to the front than most, so we were counting on his leadership to help the rest of us. Hank got a rude welcoming to Cat 1. He was gapped off the back by cyclists in front of him simply giving up. Once off the back, he could not close the gap to the field and was forced to drop out. I was around midpack, hanging on for dear life. On the half mile straight into the headwind we were doing 30-31mph, and in the other direction with the tailwind 36-37...EVERY SINGLE LAP! Andrew drifted back to where I was, thinking he had a flat (we discovered later that he had a slow leak in his front tire). He decided to soldier on and got on my wheel. I moved him up to Shane, Parker, and Jake. From my efforts, I was cooked! So, when the Finish Strong train went straight to the front on the following lap, I was not on board. The team rode the very front of the race like true professionals. Shane Braley even took a dig off the front. It was great exposure for the TeamFS. Andrew eventually had to drop out, the same nagging calf cramp coming back. A combination of the flattening tire and the efforts to move the team to the front had cost him dearly. Around 10 laps to go I passed Parker. He had the face of a defeated cyclist. He had done all he could to control the front of the race, and was spent. We were down to me, Jake, and Shane. With 9 laps to go disaster struck, when another rider caused Jake to go down in one of the turns. I slid sideways to avoid hitting Jake, and was then forced to chase the group down. It was the worst half lap of my life. I got back on and was just begging for mercy from the field. I saw Jake being pushed out of the pit with a new front wheel, but he was forced to drop out later with several scratches and a pretty nasty bruise above his left eye. In the end, Shane and I hung in there to finish 51st and 59th. Again, the super stiff Superiorlite wheels and tire setup, coupled with the stiffness and (in my opinion), best race bike geometry of our KHS Team Flite bikes made all the difference. I had never made it beyond 28 minutes in this race in two attempts. This time I made it to the end, a full two hours of torture. We improve as a team with every bludgeoning we take. Soon, you will see those orange Lazer helmets at the front at the end of the race. Until next time, friends. FINISH STRONG!