Think about this as you struggle up Washington Road today. This Sunday, the Princeton club cycling team's men's A racers climbed the hill past Robertson Hall sixteen times. In the heat. Maintaining an average speed of 25.5 miles/hour. For one hour, 20 minutes.
Saturday the Tigers joined a field of 29 teams to compete in time-trial and criterium races in New York, hosted by Columbia. Sunday the same field – all teams in the National Collegiate Cycling Association's Eastern Conference – convened in Princeton for a day of grueling road races. The Tigers placed fourth Saturday and sixth Sunday.
Time-trial, criterium and road race are the three types of racing in the club-cycling circuit. Time trials are short races in which each cyclist rides alone, trying to clock the shortest time for the circuit. Criterium races are longer, but they differ from road races in that each lap is short, less than a mile, and cyclists do 40 to 50 laps.
The road race is the longest and most difficult event. Hence, winning a road race earns more points than does winning either of the other races. Point standings will determine which teams from the Eastern Conference will go on to nationals. Last year the Tigers made nationals, only to have the road race, held in Colorado, snowed out.
Each event is further divided into categories. Men compete in A, B, C or D races, A being the most challenging. Women compete in either A or B races. Only points earned in A races count towards qualification for nationals. B, C and D racing points are counted towards overall ranking, but not national qualification. Only A riders compete at nationals.
Sunday Princeton entered riders in the men's A, B and C races and the women's A race. Up-and-coming cyclist Laurie Witucki GS placed 2nd in women's A, a 10 lap, 21 mile course, for 72 points.
Witucki is a name to remember. In her first year of racing, she also took first in the women's A time trial at Columbia, with a time of 24 minutes, 45 seconds. Junior Katy Siquig finished ninth out of 16. Both finishes were good for points.
Junior captain Reed Tanger earned 48 points, placing 9th in men's A, a race in which the top twenty of the 65 riders were awarded points. Each category races the same course, but race distance varies. Tanger and fellow A rider junior John Kelly sweated it out for 16 laps, 34 miles.
In the men's B race grad student Kai Chan took ninth, freshman Pat Zahn placed 13th and senior Rob Yeh took 14th, all three earning points. No Princeton women rode in women's B, as both female members of the cycling team are A class riders.
Cycling is first and foremost a physical sport, approaching the masochistic in its intensity. Washington Road is the most challenging climb the East Coast teams have faced this season. In men's A, only half the riders were able to even finish the course.
The strong field included Penn State racer Danny Lopez, the winner Sunday and United States Cycling Federation's national champ for 17 to 18-year olds in 1996, as well as a number of other former national champs.
"The long climb weeds out the weak riders," Tanger said. "(With regard to Princeton) the weekend was a wake up call. Some people need to work on their climbing, and I think they know that. It really was a test of what's coming."
A dark horse last year, Princeton is now a top team. Only Penn with 430 points, Yale, New Hampshire, Penn State, and Massachusetts, first through fifth respectively, scored higher team totals than the Tigers (178 points) Sunday. Yale had three A men in the top 15, an unusually strong finish for the Elis, and was the surprise finisher of the weekend.
In the end, team performance is the most important part of competition, despite cycling's apparently individual nature. If Princeton gets to nationals, it hopes to do so in the team rather than individual standings, and within each race riders work together to earn high finishes. Strategy is key.
Siquig and Witucki used a tactic called blocking to take third in last weekend's road race. When blocking, one rider will join a breakaway group while the other remains behind, working her way to the head of the pack, the main mass of riders.
Once in front, she tries to subtly slow the pack down, soft peddling a little and slowing the pace, to give her teammate the advantage. If the pack tries to organize a chase, she will slip into their rotation–a chase group will rotate leaders, as the leader spends 30 percent more energy breaking the wind than do the riders who follow in her draft–and try to disrupt it. And you have to love a sport where strategy is an euphemism for sabotage.