Fairly obviously, everyone is going to come out of this past weekend talking about the weather. Columbia's Grant's Tomb Criterium on Saturday was basically held on the front edge of a hurricane. Things died down just slightly to "mere" tropical storm levels in the middle of the day, but the early morning and late afternoon were brutal. As one telling indicator, we cut off a large section of the course because the wind, channeled and directed by the surrounding buildings, was so strong going into the traditional first turn that Alan A and I could barely stand in place and lines of hard fencing would not stand up or stay in place for any length of time, let alone front wheels track safely as riders made that fast ninety degree left.
Another reliable indicator was the large number of fields that made the new first turn, headed down the back straightaway, and proceeded to come to an almost complete stop due to the headwind, even while sprinting full-bore. For all the Men's D and Men's C racers, a secret tip: If the headwind's that ridiculous, you should probably try to spin up and sprint while seated to stay with the pack; if you're doing a full-up standing sprint in that kind of wind, you're probably catching so much more wind as to complete negate that extra effort... More importantly, it's even more critical than ever in that kind of situation to avoid that effort entirely by maintaining pack position, in this case moving up along the wide, gradually rising home stretch with the tailwind so that you don't get rubberbanded and completely left out in the wind going around Turn 1. Almost every field for the day rapidly shredded to pieces from the combo of having a hard, very rubberband prone first turn and the near impossibility of closing any sort of gap in the following headwind.
By the end of the day things were deteriorating so quickly that we did cut about 15 minutes off the Pro-1-2 race. I don't think they minded; of the 35 brave starters, all but 10 had dropped out by 30 minutes into the race and the leaders were begging for it to be wrapped up. Doing a quick tour around course during the race there was hard fencing blowing around, a good sized tree that had been uprooted in the wind, and marble slab stairs shifting in the waterfall that had formed in the eroded space behind them. Watching the substantial amount of construction fencing along the finishing stretch start making serious motions to take flight and hurl itself into the course, it was time to call it a day.
That said, I think the race went pretty well. There were actually very few crashes throughout the day, and nothing serious unless those riders left without making a note of it. In the morning almost everyone was assuming the race would have to be scrubbed, but I think by changing the course things became not much worse safety-wise than a typical rain soaked race, though probably not "fun" in that headwind despite it making for good racing. Throughout the setup period I kept telling people that conditions were definitely not bad enough to deter collegiate racers, and sure enough every collegiate field had notably diminished but certainly legitimate numbers.
Everyone that left before the Pro-1-2 and got out early probably made a good call though. John Frey, all of the officials, and Caitlin and I all spent an hour and a half to two hours sitting, literally parked with engines off, on various highways around the area due to severe flooding and downed trees along a number of major roads.
Sunday for the new Stevens race was much nicer, and the relatively few teams that didn't come made a distinctly bad call, missing a great day of racing. Other than an intense but literally two minute long downpour during the opening 3/4 race, the weather was very well behaved. Ground conditions were wet, but it was actually pretty comfortable standing around and presumably riding as well.
Having never been to the Empire State Games, I was pleased to see that the FDR Park loop actually makes a really good circuit course. Many people throughout the day remarked that it was their new favorite circuit course, and I have to agree that it looked like a lot of fun to race on. Nice sweeping corners, wide roads, just a few slight rises to warrant a bit of action, and excellent road surface throughout. Field sizes were again solid, especially in light of the previous day's weather, term breaks, and usual Sunday dropoff.
Racing on both days was very good throughout. In the Men's A field, there don't seem to be any terribly dominating early-season riders as has frequently happened in the past. The resultant large mix of riders in contention has really spiced things up. All four of the Men's A races so far have been notably dynamic, with a lot of up and down motion from breakaways and bridging attempts. The finishing breakaways, sprints, and top standings have already seen a good number of riders, a great sign for the racing to come.
All four of the Women's A/B races this year have also seen some great racing. The Columbia race featured a lot of bold moves in the rain as the pack disintegrated in the wind into little clumps strung out along the course and riders made their gambits to move up through the groups. At Stevens we again saw a lot of aggressive, positive racing from all of the ladies, with a good mix of riders trying different breakaway attempts and several concerted bridging and chase attempts. I think it's pretty clear that the minor concern about weird dynamics resulting from having two different standings is not materializing. Watching from the sidelines, it definitely seems that the Women's B racers are out for overall wins and placings, and if they have to take them from the Women's A racers then so much the better. One of these days one of those B women is going to make the perfect move, have a great day, and totally take a race from the Women's As. I'm going to put my early money on Molly from Rutgers for that distinction.
In closing though, for me I think the highlight of the weekend was the Stevens women's squad course marshaling in the early part of Sunday. Due to a few irregularities there was some initial confusion with a co-located running race on course. Although the runners were clear by the time we aimed to start racing, there was a substantial amount of vehicles to get out of their parking lot along the course. The Stevens girls took it all in stride, regulating traffic flow from the exiting runners with an iron fist, literally jumping in front of speeding Subarus and minivans to ensure a clear path for the approaching race every lap around. They did an excellent job, and everybody owes them thanks for taking the heat from angry drivers and keeping our races running.