Cool weather, strong fields, a challenging course and good organization combined to make for a very enjoyable event this year. For those who haven't been there, the criterium course in Lafayette is the same one used for the Tour d' Acadiana and features 8 turns in what I would guess to be about 0.8 miles. With two of the turns coming only about half a standard city block apart, this flat and smooth circuit has a certain amusement park quality to it when the pace gets fast.
Kenny Bellau, Howard Luna and I drove up early in the morning, as Howard and I wanted to make the 10:00 a.m. master's race. Although the temperature was still in the 50's when we arrived, dinosaur G.W. Wenzel was already wandering around in his traditional Auburn shorts, cowboy boots and hat. As it turned out, he wasn't the only one who had taken on a long drive that weekend. As race time neared, the area started to fill with jerseys from Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama, in addition to a large contingent from Shreveport and the expected good turnout from the Lafayette area. As I fished in my gear bag for my gloves, I commented to Howard, "this is going to be HARD."
I was right. With a field of 30-35 (my estimate) race-hungry riders in the Masters 30+ field, the race started out very fast. It stayed that way, too. Having totally bungled my first attempt to clip in after the start, I quickly found myself in a long single-file line that was blasting through the course at 27 mph (average speed for the race was a bit over 25). Together with Howard, I already felt like I was hanging on for dear life! The race featured non-stop attacks and counter-attacks, moderated somewhat by Mike Lew who was working like a dog up front. With his sprint-enabled teammate Frank Moak safely tucked into the middle of the elongated pack, Mike was kept busy by two or three different teams, each of which seemed intent on either setting up a break or wearing each other down.
On a tight course like this one, it can be extremely difficult to move up near the front, and it took me nearly half of the 30-minute event to work my way up to where I felt I could at least react to what was happening up there. Despite the fast pace and tight course, I don't think there were any crashes and most riders seemed pretty competent. As usual, the Texas guys tended to push their way around a bit in the pack. Of course, we were very impressed.
With a few laps to go, I worked hard to get myself up near the front, only to be nudged out of position half-way through the bell lap as everyone tried to move to the front at once. At that point, as often happens in a criterium, things got pretty hairy and people started taking some chances in order to get nearer the front. There was a bit of bumping around, but nothing serious, and I was able to regain my lost ground just before the last three turns.
With Mike Lew still expertly controlling the pace (i.e. keeping it too fast for anyone to contemplate coming around), and me on his wheel, I knew that Frank (along with Joe Otero, Jack Ditt and others) had to be lurking just behind. Coming out of the second-to-last turn, Mike stood and blasted toward the final, narrow, parking-meter-lined turn, holding the lead position and drifting now a bit to the outside. Just as we approached the turn, Mike eased up and Frank exploded past me on the quickly disappearing right side. Although I had been expecting it to happen, I was just barely able to squeeze past Mike on the outside before the door closed, and could feel my tires slipping as I came past him in the gutter. By the time I got straightened out, Frank was already a good three bike lengths ahead and raising his hands to coast over the line for first place. Howard finished just after the main pack, around 12th or so. Definitely a fun race and a good day for the Herring team.
A couple of hours later was the Senior event that featured a big, strong 50-rider field with lots of teams represented. Keith Duet, Howard Luna and I were all at the line for this race which started out a little more slowly than had the Masters race. I should mention that, since most of my observations on this race were made from the back of the pack, and in a somewhat hypoxic state, the details are a bit sketchy. Things heated up quickly, however and we were soon strung out in a 2-block long line that continually threatened to break. As this was clearly a bit more race than I was ready for, I wasn't paying too much attention to the considerable activity at the front, feeling content to close the gaps and enjoy the ride from my vantage point in the caboose. When a 2-man break containing eventual race winners Chris Alexander (Herring Gas) and Brett Faulk (Sr. Speedy/Cajun Cyclists) got away near the mid-point of the race, there were serious attempts to reel them back, but Kenny Bellau was up there working hard to thwart the chase and pull the pack up to any escapees, as were a number of Cajun Cyclists riders.
Keith Duet was one of 5 or 6 victims that day of a strange exploding-tire phenomenon that was never adequately explained. He was back in after taking his free lap and changing wheels, but lost contact near the end of the race. Howard had been struggling from the start and had retired earlier.
With the break now firmly established, things might have eased up a bit in the final laps as riders contemplated the sprint, but instead a couple of riders (not sure just who) got a gap and threatened to stay away to the end. This kept things pretty fast, and I saw Joey move up to the front with two laps to go, probably to protect a teammate in that short-lived break. Nonetheless, they were caught just as things started to heat up for the pack sprint. Again, the middle of the pack bulged as it slithered through the tight turns, and although I had managed to move up quite a bit, there were still a dozen riders ahead of me half-way into the final lap. As we negotiated, four-abreast, the first of three consecutive right-handers, someone on the outside ran out of room and went down, causing one rider to hop up onto the sidewalk without losing a beat. The moment of confusion caused by the crash gave me an opportunity to move up a few more places before the final two turns and ensuing wild sprint, finishing 10th overall, alongside Kenny Bellau. Herring's Chris Alexander beat his breakaway companion to win the race, giving the small Herring Gas contingent two wins for the day. By no coincidence, it was about half an hour before we could pry Kenny off of the massage table after the race!