Licensed to Corner: Crit Boot Camp
By Lisa Eriksson
Photos by Jonathan Ninmer and Karl Hendriske
I was laying on the bed of my weekend host house, disappointed over the crit I had just attempted at the big stage race I was in town for. I say “attempted” because I was never really in the race. I struggled with clipping in at the start and saw the pack furiously ride away from me, and was already dropped by Turn One. I lasted maybe 10 seconds to be competitive in the race at most.
With most disappointments, there are lessons, and I was determined to find a solution to my crit problem.
I’d heard of the Tour of America’s Dairyland through a local pro racer and knew the series presented the challenge I needed to try, fail, and master my weakest stage race link. I needed go to “crit boot camp” - but it was just weeks away. I set out to find a way to get there and through Facebook posts, word of mouth, and some begging and pleading, I found a most gracious host family willing to house me for a week of racing in Milwaukee.
I had about as much experience racing crits at this point as most people have with palm feeding a lion. A rare occurrence, and always accompanied by a terrible pit in my stomach. Midway through my second season as a bike racer, I had raced my fair share of road races, circuits and time trails, but with limited options in Oregon, few crits. I set out to throw myself into the turbulent waters of Midwest crit racing and either sink or swim.
I signed up for the last seven days of the tour, which offered a wide variety of crit shapes and sizes. Anywhere from four corners to eight corners, hilly or flat. “Something to suit every type of rider,” I read somewhere, and smirked at the optimism.
I felt like a 4-week-old puppy at a muddy dog park. Full of energy, but not quite sure how to use my hind legs. I got to the staging area 30 minutes before our start to make sure I’d line up in an advantageous position. Meanwhile, the veterans were getting in their warm-up on the neutral warm-up trainers, fogging their shades with their breath for a final polish, looking calm, cool and collected. Meanwhile, my upper lip was trembling and sweaty and I was avoiding eye contact with my opponents by jetting my vision between the finish line, the officials calling the shots, and the juniors trickling by.
28 minutes later, they waved us onto the course and I successfully reached the start/finish line first. Awesome. I told myself to calm down, take a breath. The women looked strong, calm and confident. As I took in the views, I counted somewhere around 40 helmets lined up around me. Bigger by far than any field I’d ever lined up with back home.
Whistle, cleats snapping into pedals, and the lead motor revving. Suddenly I was at Turn One, clipped in, and with the pack. I nailed goal number one! Keep pedaling, don’t lose position, stay near the front, I kept telling myself. I surveyed the field to see who was climbing strong, who was suffering. The pace was fast and steady, but manageable.
The bells rang for prime laps and riders around me contested sprints, but I was focused on the finish and taking every corner smoothly without losing ground. The course in West Bend was a six-corner crit with a steep little kicker out of Turn One that turned into a gradual climb up through Turns Two, Three, and Four.
I was counting down the laps and, having missed the early break off the front, made it my mission to get to the front for the last lap and hit the final corners fast and hard. I got around the pack with half a lap remaining, drilling it on the backstretch and setting up for a perfect apex of the second to last corner, when a sneaky rider threaded the needle right through the inside of my turn and got the lead. Smart move chica, I thought, I’ll add that to the book of tricks!
The rest was a bit of a blur; we all hit the finishing straight as a bunch and then did our best to sprint. I came in 10th place and was happy to have stayed upright and still in the top 10.
Afterwards, I was beaming. Something inside of me had been awoken, like the first time I got on the velodrome and took a lap. These ladies were fast, competitive, and not afraid to throw down. This was going to be a fun and wild week!
Days Two Through Six
Each day when I arrived at the new venue, I’d get in a few laps of the course, making sure to take note of the best lines through the turns and the potholes to avoid.
Pre-riding the course is essential because when you’re flying around it later at high speeds, desperately holding on to the race pace, these things won’t be as clear. I learned this on Day Two at the infamous Schlitz Park Crit. Apparently, they shorten the course for the junior races in the morning, to something far more tame than what I was about to race. Not knowing this, I pre-rode the course while it was set up for the juniors. It sure caught me by surprise to come around the first turn and find that barriers had been moved and I had no idea where I was going!
The first six days of racing were a whirlwind ride. With a few top ten results, one second place podium spot, and many lessons learned, I was eager to put what I had learned together for the final stage of the Tour of America’s Dairyland. I figured I wasn’t alone in this desire, but I woke up with a level of determination I just couldn’t ignore. The week had passed by fast with new friends, nightly BBQs, and daily race debriefings.
The successful racers were fearless in the turns, didn’t let off the pace, and knew where to position themselves for the final laps to win. I’d learned that lesson the hard way, by giving up too many spots in the final laps when it mattered the most. I still felt like today was my day and I was going to ride that confidence to finish strong.
The Final Day: Wauwatosa, WI
Everyone was buzzing with positive energy like the last day of summer camp. We all knew that after this race, we’d eventually have to return to our realities outside of bike racing. But before that, we’d have one last race and a couple margaritas to celebrate a successful week.
As we got situated on our trainers, all with ear buds pumping positive beats, we beamed our smiles at each other. Behind those smiles, we all still wanted to out-sprint the other in about 40 minutes when we’d be dashing for the finish line.
Whistle, snapping cleats, and booming race announcer. The race was on. The crowd shouted, slammed the sponsor boards, and raised their salted margarita cups in excitement.
My legs were feeling good, and I was practicing one last method during my week-long boot camp: trying to stay tucked in and calm versus patrolling the front like I’d been doing the previous days. I wasn’t going after any of the many cash primes, solely focused and setting myself up for a good finish. All of a sudden, the board is showing four to go. Time to start moving up, Lisa! I was fully alert, watching what others were doing, while trying not to set off any alarms that I, myself, was moving up. Three laps to go.
The pack was squirming. Who’s going to make a move, where’s the race leader, is she on my wheel? In one swift movement, I accelerated in a tight arch, swinging sharply in front of the pack just in time to dive fast into the corner ahead, re-accelerated hard to the next corner and hit the straightaway with momentum. Only then did I dare peek over my shoulder. Meters of dusty pavement was all I saw, then the first bike wheel was emerging out of the corner. This is it, I thought, keep the pace high, don’t get caught. I crossed the line seeing 2 to go. My legs were with me, and my mind was eagerly stoking the fire. Keep it steady, don’t get caught, you’ve got this!
The motor in front was charging and I chased it. We hit the corners flying, one after the other. 1, 2, 3, 4, with the crowds roaring around us.
One lap to go. My lungs were burning as I settled in for the TT of my life, but the pain was dissolved by the adrenaline surging through my veins at hyperspeed.
“Lisa Eriksson out of Portland, Oregon…” I could hear over the speakers as I hit Turn One for the final lap. I glanced over my shoulder once again and saw that I still had a decent gap.
“Everything, empty the tank!” I shouted in my head as I punched the incline on the backstretch, propelling myself towards the final turn. I could see the finish line in the distance, I could hear the roaring crowd like a wall of cheers drawing me into the line.
At 50 meters I knew I had it and I sat up, raising my arm triumphantly as I crossed the line, my face bursting with a flurry of tears and happiness. I did it. I had graduated from crit boot camp, licensed to corner.