In early June I travelled down to Tulsa, Oklahoma for three days of criterium racing at Tulsa Tough. I have never been very comfortable in crits, so I figured three days of back to back races would be the perfect opportunity to hone my skills and build some confidence.
The first race took place in the Brady Arts District in downtown Tulsa. The course was lined with restaurants and bars and by the time I was heading toward the start line there were already hundreds of people standing on the periphery of the course. With the larger crowd also came a larger number of women in my race. There were nearly 40 women that started, a little over two times larger than any field I had raced against previously. I quickly learned that being in a large group required more careful planning and left little room for error. I started out a little cautiously and ended up at the back for the first few laps. Although it would have been comfortable to hang out towards the back, I wanted to try my hand at some race tactics so I made my way up to the front. I spent the next 20 minutes covering attacks and trying counter attacks of my own. Although none of them stuck, it was a lot of fun to make moves and I learned a lot from just trying.
Almost half way through the race, the woman in front of me skidded on a sharp left turn at the bottom of the hill. I was on the pavement before I recognized what was happening. Most of the group was able to work their way around us and only 5 were taken out in the crash. Three of us trotted our bikes to the pit and got back in the race on the next lap. It took almost three laps to catch the group and another two laps to make it up to the front again. I was not quite as bold after the crash, but I continued to cover moves made by other riders and worked to ensure that I had a good position coming into the final two laps. That was a race that took courage from the start to finish. Although my place at the end was not what I had hoped, I learned an incredible amount about bike racing, group dynamics and tactics that day.
The second race took place at Cry Baby Hill, a famous two block steep hill outside of downtown Tulsa. The hill was famous for its rigor and for the massive parties that were thrown there during the races each year. Because the hill added a significant degree of difficulty to each lap, my race was only 30 minutes long. Coming from a background of hill climbs, I felt as though the hill was my best chance for success so I decided to hammer the hill hard each lap. In the first two laps we dropped almost half of the group. The remainder of the race was a battle for position near the front and the opportunity to control the pace for the hill. The race flew by and before I knew it the bell was being rung for the last lap. I sprinted to the top of the hill, cognizant that being in good position for the final descent and corner was imperative. The finishing stretch was about 200 meters long coming off from a sharp right turn at the bottom of a steep hill. I was lined up with eight other women coming out of the corner and sprinted for a fifth place finish. Although it was not a traditional criterium because of the hill, I learned valuable pack skills during the race and had the chance to practice tactics for the last lap.
I would highly recommend the Tulsa Tough races for anyone interested in becoming a better crit racer. Even if you do not have much experience or confidence in crits, these races are great places to build skills and challenge yourself, especially if you approach them as places to practice tactics. The support from the city for the races is also incredible; the races are all well attended by spectators and the city does a great job taking care of the cyclists throughout the weekend.