Today's post comes from Salsa Team rider Gerry Pflug. -Kid
Since I have been racing for 30 years (yeah, I know that probably makes me a pretty old dude), I thought it would be cool to write about my first ever bicycle race. The only problem is I can’t actually remember exactly what happened in the race itself, or how I actually finished. What I can tell you is that I was an 11-year-old kid at a beginner BMX race, on a cheap Murray bike with a paper plate used to display my race number on the front of my handlebars. And that the song Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne was blasting over the PA system at a dirt racetrack outside of Pittsburgh, PA called North Park. I am not sure exactly what it was about my first race that was so appealing, but something about it hooked me and I have not missed a season of racing since then.
Racing seemed like a natural progression for me as a kid. I have basically been attached to my bike from the point in time where I first took off my training wheels and learned to ride it. I used to build jumps and make trails all through the woods near my house, even before I started racing BMX. In addition to my BMX bike, I actually owned a 'ten speed' bike also and would do longer road rides (up to 20 miles or so) just because I thought it was fun. Once I started BMX racing, my affection for bike riding only grew stronger and soon racing bikes kind of defined who I was.
So, I raced BMX bikes for four years, but soon found that my newly purchased road bike I used for training was getting more riding attention than my BMX bike. Since I was spending so much time on my new ten-speed (as in two front chainrings and five rear cogs) Peugeot road bike, I decided that I should try a road bike race for the fun of it. I eventually found a junior citizens race in Sewickley, PA to do, which consisted of one 18-mile loop. Me and about 20 other junior riders lined up at the starting line that day. I was wearing red Lycra shorts, a t-shirt and a leather strapped Cinelli helmet called a hairnet. At this time in cycling, Lycra was quickly replacing the old wool style of riding shorts and it was also hard to find a pro that even wore a helmet during a race.
At that race, like I had learned from BMX racing, I took off from the gun and got the hole shot. I figured that this was good BMX strategy, so why not do the same at road racing. My early and easily achieved lead in the race was definitely a shock to me. I couldn't understand why nobody else wanted to be at the front of the pack. The fighting for the lead position that I had become so accustomed to doing in four years of BMX racing was definitely not going on in this race. I didn't care, though, and stayed at the front, setting my own pace. Eventually, the pack approached a large hill on the course and one rider shot around me to take the lead. He was actually attacking the group, but I had no idea about this race tactic back then. What I did know is that I wanted to be in first place, so I went even harder to be in the front again. The other rider then got directly behind me and followed my rear wheel very closely. He said something to me like, 'We are clear from the group.' I had no idea what he was saying or what it meant. I just knew that I was winning and so I kept going hard at the front, like it was a BMX race.
A few times during the race, the other rider with me would drop off my pace, but would soon catch back up to me again because I was not too sure where I was going. The funny thing is that I actually had to stop and wait for him a few times so that I would stay on course. Once the other rider was back with me and I was sure that we were going in the right direction, I would go directly to the lead position again and ride hard, while he rode directly behind me. Little did I know at the time that he was actually drafting off of me and saving his energy for the final sprint in to town. With less than a mile to the finish, the other racer came around me with a super fast acceleration. I did not know that the finish was approaching and said to myself that there is no way he can keep up that fast pace very long before I catch him again. Well, I soon learned that his high speed did not have to last long because I saw the finish line directly ahead of us. Needless to say, I ended up in second, but I was happy because we probably finished at least 5 minutes in front of the remaining junior riders. After the race, the race winner (Keith Dickerson) and I started talking about our race together. Keith gave me a good schooling about the bad racing tactics I used that day and gave me a lot of information about road racing in general, too. We became good friends after that race and did a lot of training and racing together as junior roadies.
It would be hard for me to talk about doing my first races without mentioning my first mountain bike race. After working my way up in road racing to a Category Two racer and riding my mountain bike recreationaly for a couple years, I decided to give mountain bike racing a try in 1989 at a small ski resort outside Columbus, OH. The first thing I remember about this race was selecting my race category. At the registration tent, I was asked in which class I wanted to race and was given the choice between Beginner, Sport or Expert. I told the registration person I wasn't sure what class to do, but provided her with some information about my road and BMX racing experience. She recommended that I do the Pro/Expert race because of my past racing experience. Since I was only doing MTB racing for off-season road training and didn't have any agenda with winning the race, I agreed with her recommendation.
I lined up with about 40 other Pro/Expert racers on my newly purchased fully rigid Cannondale with a Suntour drivetrain, toe clips, and running shoes. Not really knowing what to expect from a MTB race and coming off a successful five years of road racing, I decided to use a road racing type of start. I started slowly and figured I would see how the race went before getting too aggressive on my bike. Of course, now I know that the start of a MTB race is more like BMX race start because it is usually best to get an early lead before things bottleneck in the singletrack. A this race, however, I took my time going into the singletrack, which put me pretty far back at the beginning of the race. I soon learned how much extra work I had to do to gain positions back, but I slowly made my way through a lot of riders in front of me. Also, since the course was a multi-lap style race, I became more comfortable with going faster on each lap, learning where I could make up time and recover from my efforts.
At the beginning of the last lap, I was told that I was in second place and not far behind the first place rider. Up until this point, I really did not know where I was in the race because I had entered the singletrack behind so many other riders. But, hearing now that I was in second kindled a flame in my legs and I started to push myself harder to catch the leader. I eventually saw the lead rider up the trail in front of me and I devised a tactic in my head to attack him on a climb about midway through the course, since attacking on climbs had always worked well in road racing for me. By the time we approached the climb, I had caught the leader and was ready to go. I attacked hard and got clear from him pretty quickly. Luckily, things went well for the last half lap and I maintained my lead until the finish. I couldn’t believe that I had actually won my first ever MTB race, especially since it was in the Pro/Expert class. I have no clue why this win didn't entice me to change completely over from road to MTB racing right then and there. I should have taken it as a good sign, but instead I continued to concentrate more on road racing until the mid 1990s.
I think it is cool hearing the first race experiences of other racers, so add one here, or share one with me at one of the many races I will be doing this year. I never grow tired of hearing good race stories...or 'bad' ones for that matter, too.
Happy Trails, Gerry