We walked into Javalina coffee desperately looking for our early afternoon pick-me-up. Javalina had become our caffeine store of choice in Silver City, not only because their coffee was tasty, but because they offered riders a 10% discount and the employees were actually interested in the race.
“Who won the race today?” Asked the barista as she waited for the machine to approve my overloaded credit card.
“Evan Huffman…a Rally guy,” we said, proudly pointing to our Rally Cycling hats.
“You guys have been doing really well!” She said with a smile. “Who’s gonna win tomorrow?”
I looked down and noticed a well-worn Magic 8-Ball that was sitting somewhat randomly on the counter. I picked it up and held it upside-down.
“Is Eric Young going to win the crit tomorrow?” I asked, referring to Rally’s ace sprinter. I turned the ball around and let the die settle against the tiny window.
Criteriums get a bad rap in the competitive cycling community. Climbers generally hate them. Road racers tend to dismiss them, categorizing them as the lowest life form among bike races. More secretly, anyone who doubts their handling ability on the bike certainly does their best to avoid them.
But at the end of the day, criteriums are the life-blood of racing in the United States, the glue that holds it all together. It’s much easier for a race promoter to close off a few blocks in town on a weekend than it is to organize a rolling closure on a 90-mile road course. Therefore, crits are everywhere. Most pro racers get their first taste of racing in a local amateur criterium. Only criteriums offers fans a chance to see a bike race unfold close-up - to witness attacks, bridges, chases, and frantic, high-speed sprints to the line - all in the time it takes to dry a load of laundry.
The Rally team had been racing out of their heads all week long at the Tour of the Gila, taking victories in every stage and putting time trail guru Evan Huffman in the overall leader’s jersey. They also had the best sprinter in the field in stage 2 winner Eric Young. This situation complicates things for a criterium, especially when the following day’s stage – the last of the race - happens to be the toughest stage of the entire event and for climbers only. Cycling is a team sport, and to win the crit, Eric Young will need help from his teammates, whether it’s chasing down dangerous breakaways, or providing a crucial lead-out at the end of the race. However, Eric’s teammate and overall race leader, Evan Huffman, will need the team’s legs fresh to lend him the critical support he will need to defend the jersey in the brutal climbing stage to come.
Should they help Eric win the crit? Or save their legs to protect the overall? It’s quite a conundrum.
The Silver City crit is not easy. At just over 1 mile, each lap contains a gradual, seven-block ascent, two steep hills, and an extremely fast, off-camber downhill turn that leads into the long finishing straight. It favors a rider with hardened nerves. The entire town comes out to watch the spectacle as the speeding peloton completes lap after lap around Silver City’s historic downtown.
Fortunately for Eric Young, Rally’s versatile climber, Rob Britton, is on fire. Every time a breakaway seems to have a chance at success, Rob helps chase it back. Nothing gets away. With just a few laps left, Australian veteran Greg Henderson makes a serious move, attacking solo and getting a huge gap. Henderson has a great motor, and even at forty years of age he still commands the respect of the peloton. The Rally team know they can’t spend the energy to chase him down, and it looks for several laps like Eric’s chances of winning are quickly fading.
Then Rally catches a huge break. Cylance Cycling, a team with several good sprinters in the mix, bring five riders to the front and begin to set a hard tempo. Cylance has been shut out of stage wins thus far, and without a rider in the top five overall, they are committed to the chase. This is their shot. Henderson comes back slowly. Unfortunately, they lose control of the race in the final laps as their riders exhaust themselves from the chase and now no single team has control of the front. The race flies through the start/finish with one lap to go, and we can see Eric sitting comfortably in the top five, waiting to unleash his punishing sprint.
At this point the race is all but over. Young moves up on the hilly back straight, smartly finding the wheel of veteran sprinter Karl Menzies. He lets Menzies guide him safely down the hill and through the final corner without a touch of the brakes. They’re already hitting 40mph in the strong tailwind as Eric jumps around Menzies and fully commits to his sprint. Nobody will come around him.