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The crowds were 3 rows deep and it was hard to find a spot to watch the action. The local Twilight beer filled the cups of many people around the 1K course and as the women's race came to a close, the music started to increase in volume and you could see the anticipation and adrenaline just firing within the Pro riders.
Not knowing the situation with Karel and his wheel, I finally could breath (albeit, a short and not long-lived relaxing exhale) when I heard Karel's name..and his first ever call-up! (Thanks Sean C. for the video!!)
After 35 VIP riders received their call-ups, the baracades were removed from the other 115 or so riders and the tension started to mount.
Chad does an A-mazing job of announcing, I absolutely LOVE hearing him as a race announcer. As an added treat/bonus to the evening, the course had a jumbo-tron on the other side of the course, as well as another announcer to keep the action exciting for the spectators, no matter where you watched the race.
The clock started and the riders were off.....
As written by David Crowe "If the racer is still alive at the end of the first lap, and not too far in arrears, then he must bury his muzzle in the crack in front of him and hold on for his honey's life. During the first 10 laps, a rider's pain meter is quivering at the far end of the red zone. He is feeling the scalding lactic burn in his legs caused by excessive speed. The fastest riders in the world are uncorking the top-shelf bottles of high- octane. These merchants of speed know that in the first 10 laps they can cause an explosion in the field. Over half the field will get dropped, quit the race or crash in the first five laps. The disco sprinters want to shred the field and dump as many riders as possible, now. This leaves fewer to contend with later. In most criteriums, if a rider survives the first 10 laps, he knows he will survive until the end. In most criteriums, after the initial frantic, escape from the Titantic-like frenzied free-for all, there is an ever- so slight decrease in speed. A small incremental drop in speed can do wonders for a rider's ability to stuff his lungs back down his esophagus and recover his runaway breath. But the Twilight is not like "most" criteriums. In fact, it's most unusual. The speed does not drop. It is relentless. It is like trying to play chess while your heart rate is a constant 200 beats per minute. Riders carry out silent disputations with themselves in the first five laps. See one grimace; his inner self, the rational one, has just scored with a cogent point phrased as a question: this is fun? But these two-wheeled warriors, at least the ones that are left, are also master magicians, real Svengalis. They've been outwitting pain for years. Pain, they know, is strong like a bull, but smart like a tractor. They trick pain; they confuse pain; they endure pain like a visit from a mother-in-law. They force pain to a back row. And just when they think everything is under control, the race becomes faster. A rider is pedaling 37 miles per hour and is struggling to hang on. He looks up the road and sees a group of four riding away from the front of the field. He looks down at his speedometer on his handlebars. He's going 38 now. The four are still riding away. This can't be possible."
As if the roads of downtown Athens haven't had enough beatings, they were in for a brutal night with 150 riders attacking every inch of this pavement.
The Athens 1K course is a right-turn only criterium with 1 steep climb on the backside of the course, which starts almost immediately after corner #2. I refuse to watch that corner as that is the "hot" corner or AKA "CRASH central". NO THANKS! I like to stand in a crash - free zone (if there is one in crit racing???) for I only want to hear about crashes after Karel finishes a race and is in one piece, safe and sound.
After corner #3, there is a gradual decline to give the legs a few seconds of recovery (and to try to exhale as much CO2 as possible to reduce that oh-so-painful burn from sprinting out of every corner)
and before you know it, the riders are turning at corner #4 for a gradual climb (not as steep as the backside) to the start and finish.
The first few laps were exciting (like always) as riders are trying to break away, ride solo for some glory (and fame) and to rev up the crowd. Prems were being given away left and right in order to shake up the pack and to make the race interesting for us spectators (Prems are money given to the first rider to cross the line, either in a break or the field and in a race like Twilight, prems range from $100-$500 as an example).
Karel was sitting nicely in the middle of the pack and although he had a nice draft on the wheel in front of him, speeds of 27-30+ mph on a tight 1K course (with 4 corners for every lap) make it incredibly hard to draft "easily". I am always amazed when seeing Karel's power file after these big races - so colorful with so many spikes from his heart rate and power.
Karel told me that around 12 minutes into the race, he made the mistake of looking at the clock. What a depressing moment in such an exciting race when you know that you are racing at your max, your legs are already burning with pain and you have to convince yourself "OK, only 90 more minutes to go."
Karel said that he didn't look at the lap counter until around 46 laps to go.
I remember Chad saying "Alright riders, only 6 laps to go...until you are half way!"
The action was getting fierce by the riders when a 2 man breakaway started to look as if it would stick for the remainder of the race. But, it's Athens and as a 4-time spectator, I know that teams will do everything possible to not let a break stay away - especially if the sprinter on that team in the chase field is not in the break.
Karel was still riding strong, as were Ryan and Eric (Gearlink cat 1 teammates), all staying around mid pack with Karel staying just a few riders in front of Eric and Ryan. Karel was looking really good and with a group of college girls around me, cheering for Karel (made some friends as I was explaining the sport of cycling and crit racing to them) I was feeling really good about Karel making it a 2/2 - finishing Twilight for the 2nd year in a row after 5 total years of racing in this invite-only event.
With around 20 or 30 laps to go (I forgot), I noticed that the chase group was small. Immediately, I knew there was a crash.
I see a dozen or two riders heading to the wheel pit and without seeing Karel, my stomach dropped to my feet. Karel is an exceptional bike handler and although only luck is on your side when it comes to crit racing, I was happy to see Karel in one piece, slowly pedaling along the far side of the race course, stretching his back with his butt out of the saddle.
Karel made his way to the wheel pit and waited til he could join the crowd. Because you can get a free lap for a mechanical, flat tire or crash up until 8 laps to go, I wasn't worried about Karel at this moment but rather just loosing his rhythm, perhaps having his body seize up from go, go, go to nothing and of course, having to dodge any more crashes with only 20 or so minutes left to go.
Karel managed to get back in as he got a big push-off (along with a dozen or so other riders in the pit) from the mechanics. As the field is cruising over 30mph, you can imagine how hard it is going from a crash, to soft pedaling, to stopping, to waiting, to going 30+ mph just to be able to find a wheel before corner #1.
But 4 corners later, I saw Karel - back where he was before the crash, sitting nicely in the middle.
With 8 laps to go, the tension was riding. A lot was on the line for the pro's who were racing for the big win but for me, the wife of a talented and hard working individual who just wants the glory of finishing this notorious crit, I was just counting down the laps and keeping a close eye on Karel.
As written by David Crowe:
"If a rider can hang on and hold out for half the race, something happens. The demon of self-doubt is put to sleep. Confidence begins its slow drip into the veins. You don't need to see a rider's face to know: look at the way he handles his bike. A rider with confidence does not ride with his fingers over the brake levers; he's down in the drops, gripping the bars. He's sailing through turn one in a perfect arc, coming out of the corner in front of the Georgia Theatre cruising comfortably two inches from the curb, intentionally coming within centimeters of the heads of the habitués that are stretched out over the barricade. (No one's ever been beheaded.) He's smiling. He's entered the Zen-zone. This is special. If a rider makes it to the end, there is another factor to consider. Pro teams are expected to win. This is no longer about sportsmanship and fair play, if it ever was. Riders bump and grind and jostle for position. Various invectives are hurled. Psychological tactics are employed. The best sprinters in the world play a terrifying game of chicken: hit the brakes or hit the fence, take your pick. Back off Jack! Riders may be at The 283 Bar afterwards downing a cold beer, but at this point in the race, this is a job. This is a paycheck. This is thousands in prize money. This is winning. These boys are living. The last two or three laps of this race are spectacular. The big teams are amping up the speed as high as it can be humanly maintained. The reason: it's impossible for a rider to move up if he's 20 back and already pedaling at his limit. The disco sprinter on the team - the one expected to win - is sitting forth, fifth or sixth wheel. Out of the last corner, the sprinters have moved up and are now second, third or fourth wheel. These are the spots the winner will come from. The last 200 meters is simply a stripped-bare example of sheer speed. Racers look as if they are trying to tear their bikes apart at the seams as they pull and jerk and twist and pedal in a violent display of inner angst. They cross the line. It's all over. All smiles. That was the greatest race they've ever done. They can't wait to do it again. Have you ever watched film of mountaineers climbing Everest? They're miserable. Their teeth chatter like a jackhammer. Have you heard them speak of their experiences after they return? They can't wait to go back. They're sick, the whole lot of them!"
7 laps, 6 laps, 5 laps, 3 laps.
At this point, the pace was picking up. Teams were getting organized and the sprinters were bitting their teeth for the moment they have been waiting for, for the past 364 days.
With 2 laps to go, the field was all together and I knew this would be an exciting finish.
A gambler prem was tossed out for the person who wanted the "Dough for the show" and knew if he sprinted for the gambler prem, he would certainly have nothing in the tank for the final sprint. At this point, it's all about the win and tactics for the bigger teams.
With 1 lap to go...the music was pumping as the crowd was screaming. I watched Karel cross over the finish with 1 lap to go and I finally could relax. YIPPEE - I knew Karel was going to be so happy. Exhausted, but happy.
The finish was amazing. Words can't describe what these riders go through but they love it. They breath, eat and sleep this crazy self-inflicting torture and despite being totally exhausted at the finish, most of them have 6 more races to go, with a total of 7 races in 9 days for USA crit speed week...all starting with Athens Twilight. They love this stuff and for me as a spectator - I LOVE watching it!
Thanks Sean C. for capturing this great video of the finish (from a different angle) and for spotting Karel as he rolled over the line.
After the finish, Karel did his victory lap. Beers were being handed out to the riders by the crowd and high fives were being handed out as if the Athens Twilight finishers had each just won the olympic gold medal. Each finisher is treated like a God by the crowd and believe it or not, these riders soak in their accomplishment but still, expect more out of themselves. I suppose the athlete mentality of always wanting more out of yourself is true, no matter the sport, no matter the fitness level.
Karel hydrated with a coke which was given to him by one of his friends and with his head still spinning from doing 320 right hand turns in 1 hour and 42 minutes, I couldn't wait to give him a big hug and kiss.
As I mentioned before, you are instantly "famous" once you finish the Athens twilight crit....Karel gave his autograph to a fan and I just had to snap a pic.
So proud of Karel!! He wanted this so bad and despite being really nervous (as would be expected by any rider doing this race) he pulled himself together and suffered in both mind and body.
Our friends (and Trimarni coaching athletes) Kenny, Stefanie (and baby on the way) joined Karel and me, as well as my Trimarni nutrition athlete Katie and her hubby Carlos.
Talk about a fan club....Karel's Waycross, GA customers even made the trip to Athens, GA to watch Karel. What a super nice, fun and supportive group!! That's right - Karel has Jacksonville Trek store customers who live in GA..I suppose if you love your bike, you only bring it to the best mechanic in Florida (ok - a bit biased but he is that good).
Talk about the best feeling in the world. Everything riding (literally) up to this main event and by 11pm, FINISHER can be written on the athletic resume.
Karel had a great race, a great finish but of course, a restless night of sleep.
We always joke the morning after a crit race "I didn't sleep well" says Karel "I kept making turn after turn in my sleep".
Here's a recap and results from the race: (Karel was 50th!!!!)