Mixing it up with the Men at the Fort Classic

RDC’s Stephanie Swan wins the Cat 1/2/3 Women in the Fort Classic Road Race

“I’m never complaining about racing with the women again!”

“I never did complain about racing with the women!”

…Overheard men’s voices at the awards podium after the race this past weekend…

The women’s field was mixed in with about 40 masters men in my race on Sunday – The Fort Classic Road Race in McDonald, PA. It can often make for a more exciting, faster effort to race co-ed, so I am always glad when we are combined. Here’s how it worked out:

The course is a flat to rolling eight mile loop – we did five times around. Despite various attacks and chases here and there, the group stayed together, as flat races do. There was somewhat of a “hill” which spread out the pack, but then it would come back together over the course of the loop, with a few riders getting popped off the back here and there.

It was only in the last lap that things finally got broken up. Two riders known for their sustained power -Frankie Ross/Sette Nove and Jim Doan (unattached) – attacked and got away at around four miles to go. At that time, I made my way to the front of the group. I wanted to be within the top five riders going into the last four miles of the race because, barring any further breakaway attempts, here is how I imagined it would play out: There’d be a series of attacks, stringing out the field but not breaking it up, and a mad effort to hold a wheel. When that happens, you can’t move up easily, so it’s best to start as far forward as possible.

Here is me, fifth wheel back in the red helmet on the right side of the picture. Exactly where I want to be.
I am fifth wheel back in the red helmet on the right side of the picture. Exactly where I want to be. Photo: Fred Jordan.

Close to the front, I took my turn in the rotation. However, when I took my pull, and pulled over (at about three miles to go) no one came around me to take their turn. No one wanted to be up front (fair enough!) so I stayed at the front riding a comfortable pace, listening for the sound of sprinting wheels behind me. I rode on the yellow line so I’d only have to watch for sprinting riders on my right side.

A round of attacks started with about two kilometers to go. It was rapid fire for the rest of the race but since I was so far up front when it started, I was well positioned to grab Eric Hodos’ wheel (UPMC/ProBikes) as the field got strung out single file, and little groups got gapped out and shelled off the back. Was happy to get fourth in the uphill sprint – so sixth overall and first woman. Nicole Dorinzi/Pathfinder of West Virginia, the current leader of this ABRA road race series, was the only other woman to make it to the sprint, and finished same time as me.

And here is my sprinting to 4th place, partially obscured but you can see my red helmet on the right. Mark Nicholl/GPOA takes the 40+ field sprint.
Here I am sprinting to 4th place, partially obscured but you can see my red helmet on the right. Mark Nicholl/GPOA (in green) takes the field sprint. Photo: Fred Jordan.

After the race, the winner of the 50+ race (Michael Angove/WWVC Racing) came up to me and thanked me for the lead-out. He said he looked around and I was the best wheel he found in the final hectics, so he jumped on for the win in his category. You are welcome, Michael!

Practice Makes Perfect

Racing with men, as I’ve written about before, presents different challenges than racing with an all-women’s field. On the one hand, a woman is “tolerated” more in the pack because we are not direct competition. On the other hand, I feel invisible at times and really have to stand my ground, and move in on riders when they are riding the “easy chair” draft between two riders ahead of them. Do you not see me? Do you not see the rest of the field lining up two-by-two?

I enjoy rotating through the pace line and contributing what I can. My goal, regardless how fast the pace is, if my turn comes up, is to take enough pedal strokes to keep up the pace and pull through. Even if it’s only ten pedal strokes.

Being comfortable riding with the men can often mean success in a mixed field – so it’s something I am constantly working on. Riding the weekly training crit at the Pittsburgh bike oval is great practice for that. What is my strategy there? One time, I was on a break with three CAT 1 men for about 100 meters – got shelled pretty fast as they sprinted away from the field and got blown off the back of the main pack after the effort.  So how do I make it fun and competitive if I cannot directly compete with the leaders? I focus on pack skills. Working my way up the field as much as possible. If I get to the front, I take my 10 or more pedal stokes. Participation like that is gratifying. Integrating back into the pack after a pull is challenging in and of itself.

One the one side of the coin, the training crits with “Pittsburgh’s Best” repress my competitive spirit. I’m in a race I do not aspire to win. But on the other side, success of any kind at these races is all the more gratifying. My best placing in the training crits was 10th in the sprint, and the day I won a Nugo Bar Prime – well that I consider a big accomplishment!

…and if I get a compliment racing with the men, even a backhanded one like “I’m never complaining about racing with the women again!” – well, I’ll take it.

4 Replies to “Mixing it up with the Men at the Fort Classic”

  1. Fantastic writeup and food for thought for all racers. Thanks Swan for sharing your insights, strategies, and all around passion for the sport!

  2. I am glad you enjoyed the write up, Mary! This race reminded me of some things I really like about road cycling – like when things don’t get broken up on the climbs and there’s an aggressive finish.

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