How's your sprint? Do you even know? How many chances do you get to try different finishes when win or lose you're done until next weekend? Imagine instead sprinting every few minutes for 5 or 6 laps in a race, then resting a few minutes and going at it again. Welcome to Night at the Oval.
Long a staple of the Hawkeye Bicycle Association in Cedar Rapids, the last few years Night at the Oval has been organized by CRANDIC Racing Club. "We need more beginner-friendly race opportunities, and this is a very safe and easy venue to set up," said Chief Official Larry Howe.
Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, with paved short track ½ mile and ¼ racing venues for cars and motorcycles, is also home to Eastern Iowa's most unique bike racing series. The Oval offers cyclists a chance to race several times a night in a variety of short races that mimic track racing and emphasize the skills at the core of road racing.
Racing in a pack is all about tactics. The technique is mostly straightforward. Your fitness is there or it isn't. But success in road racing usually comes from measuring and timing your effort, from forcing others to work, and from leveraging your team's strength in numbers. Most often it's not the strongest who wins, it's the smartest.
At the Oval you can learn from mistakes in one race and apply those lessons right away to the next. Start your sprint too early? Rest five minutes and race again, sprint a bit later and see where that gets you. Don't think you can sprint at all? You can try something different to find a sprint that works for you, help a teammate with a screaming fast lead out for their sprint, or practice dropping the sprinters before approaching the line.
Night at the Oval is essentially an omnium: each race is scored separately – 1st place is 1 point, 2nd place is 2 points, etc – the rider with the fewest points at the end of the night wins their category. "Most of the races are track based," explained Howe. But don't worry, each race is explained along the way.
"Devil Takes the Hindmost, Snowball, Points Race. We also do Scratch Races and use different track configurations such as the Big C to put some corners in like a criterium. With enough riders we can even run two groups at the same time. We break the riders out in self-selected groups, A,B,C, etc. We can do a junior's group or a women's group if we have enough of either. We try to mix things up so riders never quite know what to expect."
A constricting cyclocross season has left a lot of us with unexpected free time this Labor Day Weekend. (More on that later.) Fortunately for us, though, that Sunday is the original grassroots gravel adventure, the longest running gravel race in the Midwest, the breathtakingly beautiful and so-hilly-that-epic-doesn't-describe-it Colesburg Back 40.
"It started 29 years ago with a group of mountain bikers in the Dubuque area," explained Race Director Michelle Carithers. "They would go on an annual trip to the Hayward-Cable Wisconsin area to compete in the Chequamegon 40 MTB race, with its Birkebeiner's rolling hills and sketchy, chunky fire roads. So to better prepare, they looked for the area that best mirrored the Chequamegon race."
"The climbs, views, and descents are some of the best in Iowa."
– Ryan Jacobsen, Corridor Devo Junior Cycling Team
Set in the amazing Driftless Area, the Colesburg 40 is still quite true to its grass roots origin, even as it evolves with the times. This year, for the first time, the race includes a 100-mile option Carithers calls 'Iowa's Hardest Hundred.' "My hope was that it would draw more of the distance racers," she said, "and honestly, I truly believe it is the hardest. OMG it's challenging. I've ridden all the tough climbs, but it would take me 2-3 days to complete the entire 100 miles!"
"The Colesburg 40 has the biggest, nastiest climbs I've ever ridden in Iowa, gravel or paved." – Cole Ledbetter, Iowa Gravel Project
Iowa's Hardest Hundred
"Back in the day there was only the 40 and people talked about it like it was epic," said Sugar Bottom Bike's Nate Kullbom, the Course Director for the upcoming Core4. "I did the 60 last year and thought that distance was perfect, but since they are offering the 100 I gotta try it."
"The 40 is hard, the 60 is tough and the 100 is spot-on with its claimed 'Iowa's Hardest Hundred,'" said BIKEIowa's Scott Sumpter.
"I’ll have to get back to you on if it is, in fact, Iowa's hardest 100," said Kullbom. "I think the hardest 100 miler will be Driftless 100 in that same general area, Core4, or Colesburg."
"The descents are windy and technical and will have you testing your skills."
– Nate Kullbom, Core4
"As far as the routes go," said Carithers, "everything stems off the original 40 mile route. I've tweaked it here and there, but it's mostly the same. The 40 is the history of the race." Other options are 25 and 60 miles, "not a cake walk" and "if you like to be tortured," respectively. All include Level B and C roads, and the brutal climbs that characterize the Driftless Area.
"A beautiful course, some brutal hills, and a cold beer at the end with no extra fanfare."
– Vanessa Curtis, Iowa City Cycling Club
Years ago the Colesburg 40 was largely known through word of mouth. Now registration is on BikeReg.com. "I've worked hard over the last couple years to help grow attendance. That meant going to a lot of other races to race and bring awareness. I also volunteer at other races to help out and basically be a familiar face. I wanted food available for the racers after the race. I'm a huge fan of supporting local so I asked the local 4H group if they'd set up a booth. I mean who doesn't want to support kids' activities, right? We'll also have a sort of DJ there for announcements and to play music. And I'm making a podium with a cool backdrop as well as custom title belts for the winners of the 100."
"It's a true grass roots event with a super relaxed vibe. The race is set in a major farming community and that's why I changed the name to the Colesburg Back 40. I wanted to keep the original 40 in the name and "back 40" is a common phrase land owners use. It only seemed fitting."
"I love the paper-plate race number grassroots vibe." – Scott Sumpter, BIKEIowa
The race's organization is all volunteer, and proceeds go to the community of Colesburg. "I put together a group of advisors to help me make decisions (Ross Lemery, Lisa Mormann, Cory Rood, and Mark Stender)," said Carithers. "All of them are well known in the cycling community and they bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the table. I'm blessed to have them."
"It doesn’t get prettier in Iowa than the Driftless." – Kimberly Breuer, Cedar Valley Cyclists
"As far as volunteers, over the years many are friends who may not be in race condition for some reason or another. Some are spouses of the racers, and community members. Last year I had my father sweep and my mother was stationed at an aid station.
"I will lead out all four races, riding my Harley. The back of my shirt will say 'Queen of Pain with a twist of Fun.'" We can't wait!
The Colesburg Back 40 isn't going to compete with corporate gravel any time soon, but that's okay. Instead, it's a reminder of what "grass roots" actually means, and why we fell for gravel in the first place.
Register today on BikeReg.com.
Aside from Lake Macbride, the course has included bike trails, snowmobile trails, pavement, and gravel. This year it adds an extra five or six miles for 31 miles total. Depending on conditions, organizers expect the new route to take racers anywhere from 2½ to 6½ hours.
"All three team members have to finish together. If someone is slower the others have to help them with the pace. If someone breaks down or flats everyone is in it together to resolve the problem." What a great idea!
The Solon Lions Club's involvement was no accident, explained Kullbom. "Longtime SBB customer and Solon Lions club member Jay Profitt approached me with the idea of a fat tire ride in Lake Macbride State Park to raise money for the Lions Club. Right away I knew what I wanted to do and what trails and route to use. The first year the route was multiple laps of very hilly terrain in the park and was touted as too difficult by many. Over the years we have refined it to create the best event possible. But since the beginning the Lions Club and the community of Solon have been integral parts of the race and make up a vast majority of the volunteers involved.
Dress for success
Whichever event you sign up for, it's important to be prepared.
Winter riding Conditions
"Jon (Yetley, owner of SBB) spends three or four days and nights grooming the course with a snowmobile and pull behind single-track groomer while I walk or snowshoe the course with a backpack full of course markers, a drill with a two foot long spade bit to drill into the frozen ground, and a mallet to pound the stakes in. We also provide GPS route maps, but it’s good to have both. Typically every year there are one or two snowmobile or groomer breakdowns or issues getting them stuck because the course is so steep and treacherous."
Arduous work, certainly, but ultimately worth it. "We’ve had tons of people sign up all four years so far. They keep coming back. The beer and bacon checkpoint is second to none, and the after party is great."
No wonder folks keep coming back!
All photos courtesy of Hanson Photo Design. Check out the rest of their 2020 Lake Macbride Fat Tire Classic album and much more at Hanson Photo Design.
Below, a few Night at the Oval testimonials from 2018, though all still very true today.
"We are excited to be there this Tuesday and this time I will race too. See ya Tuesday!"
Kat Porter, Twisted Spokes
"Love the Oval - I have been going for years. The different race formats are fun and make you think and get your strategy going.
"My favorites are the 'C Race' and points races. NatO gives folks an opportunity to ‘road race’ at a lowered risk level and practice drafting and lead out skills."
Mario Czarnomski, ICCC
"The Night at the Oval is a fantastic race-like workout that preps you for crits and sprints. Get a good warm up because the intensity is high from the GO!"
The races mainly take place on the 1/2 mile oval, so the terrain is flat and predictable, allowing you to just focus on staying with the pack, and timing your sprint.
"At NatO there are multiple races in a night, which gives you the chance to try out different strategies. If you mess up your first race, just wait 10 minutes and go at it again with a new strategy.
"The best part is the relaxed and friendly atmosphere. While it is competitive, everyone is there to have a good time on their bikes on a Tuesday night."
Victor, Youth Off Road Riders & Goosetown Racing/New Pioneer Food Coop
"It's a great opportunity for kids to get to know their community and to meet new people and share new experiences with them. Especially those that mountain bike often but are trying to get into road racing.
My favorite race is the "Miss and Out," because it's very tense at times and relaxed at other times. I enjoy having to sprint often."
Wayne Fett, Goosetown Racing/New Pioneer Food Coop
"The Oval races help everyone with their race skills no matter how long they've been racing. It also provides an excellent interval or sprint workout."
Rob McKillip, CRANDIC Racing Club
"NatO is the Cliff Notes of bike racing ... just the important bits, none of the long, boring miles. It's a unique chance to try out the strategies you normally only ready about, or see on TV.
"Just try out different strategies, be bold ... if it didn't work, who cares, try something different in the next race, ten minutes later. It's an awesome workout. You will get to hear rates you'll just never see in your basement ... and have way more fun doing it!
"There's an A and B group, so don't have to worry about being slow. Besides, everybody is nice. Also, it's fan friendly -- you can see the entire race, so bring your family. There is no better way to learn to race.
"Come challenge the Snoops in the Granny Gear Race, or Rob in the Big Gear Race ..."
The Fun Stuff (Races)
Most nights each group starts out with a scratch race. This is a straight forward criterium (a circuit race on a shorter circuit) with no turns. However-many laps around the 1/2 mile oval track and the race is scored entirely on the finish order. Why is it called a scratch race? I dunno. If you know, leave a comment.
"I run the snowball quite a bit," says (handsome) USAC official Larry Howe. "It's a variant of the points race. Sprint laps every other lap, but only first place gets points. How many points increases each sprint: two for the first sprint, four points for the second, six for the third sprint, and ten points for the finish." Riders with points are placed accordingly. Riders without are placed behind them based on their finish.
Basically, it's miss & out -- the last rider each lap is removed and given the respective finish placement. Lap #1's last rider will be last place, lap #2's last rider is second to last, etc. (While cycling would love to take credit for "devil take the hindmost," the proverb predates the bicycle by at least 300 years.)
The spiral of death/spiral of life gets even crazier. One lap each of the 1/2, 1/4, & 1/8 mile ovals in a spiral .... then back out. The course is unique, to say the least
Little gear is one lap in your smallest gear, and the same rules apply. Goofy enough that it's probably good that big gear and little gear don't count. Still, we'll list how everyone finished just for bragging rights.
Scoring the Night at the Oval
Sit out a race and you get the maximum points (so one night when 40 people were suffering in the heat, eight people got 40 points for skipping a race and the very last person who actually raced got 32). "The tie breaker is the rider with the highest place finish in any race. If that is equal, it's the finish in the final race of the evening."
Speaking of scoring, with any luck at all racers will be able to follow along as the night's results unfold on CRANDICRacing.com. Fingers crossed...
Sponsors and . . . Prizes ? ! ? ! ?
In the future hopefully we can offer more prizes, cash, or whatever. For now, though, we can at least do this: in each of whatever group races, the top placed male and female will get a night of free racing whenever they choose at Night at the Oval. Except Juniors, of course, because you all race free anyway.
Registration for Night at the Oval is online only at BikeReg.com.
Come race your bike.
The pandemic is far from over, no matter how much we would like it to be. Days are longer, and warmer. Vaccinations are happening at a remarkable pace. But Covid numbers are looking worse, rather than better, because new variants are more contagious and, on the whole, we are less careful than we should be.
"This year we started planning a bit later because the shop has been busy even during the off season," said Sugarbottom Bikes' Nate Kullbom, Race Director for the Lake Macbride Fat Tire Classic next weekend. "There was never really any doubt we would try to hold the event. In races like this, we are talking about wide open spaces with plenty of room to move about, and almost zero spectators. You may have a fairly large group at the start, but by 5-10 minutes in you will have most people riding solo or in very small groups."
To be sure, the very nature of outdoor events makes them easier to do safely. But organizers aren't stopping there. "We moved to online registration only," said Kullbom, "with packet pickup available almost every day at Sugar Bottom Bikes the week preceding the event. Masks or face coverings will be required right up until participants put the power down on the pedals. This is winter fat biking after all, some people may choose to wear a face covering for the entirety of the event just to stay warm!
"The biggest change is an optional start time window of 2 hours to allow people to start whenever they want and avoid a mass start. Registered racers can organize a time for the fast racers to start together if they want. Typically at a race like the Lake Macbride Fat Tire Classic, 70-80% of the participants are just in it for the experience, and not necessarily racing. "
Last year another early season favorite, the Team Red Shamrock Trail Challenge, was one of the first races to go virtual. "We were one of the very first events that dealt with the shut down," says Race Director John Hall. The Red Shamrock Foundation, normally a busy non-profit supporting young cancer survivors, hasn't been active since. "We suspended all activity since then. When we pulled the plug on 2020 events, the 2021 Trail Challenge was always set to be our next event."
The popular trail run, part of the No Coast Trail Series, is set to return for its 10th edition March 27th in Iowa City's Hickory Hill Park. "It was probably in November of 2020 that we started prepping for the event. It takes a lot of time to ramp up to these things and at the time we hoped that COVID would be under control. If not, we also knew that we could do another virtual event.
fewer volunteers, checkpoints, snacks, beer
"We will have the normal precautions of face mask and social distancing, even though it's an outside event. If necessary we'll stagger the start, although I'm hoping we don't have to go that far. For post race food we will have prepackaged food/drink to grab and go. No homemade goodies like in years past."
There will be sacrifices. "We will have fewer volunteers, checkpoints, snacks, beer," said Kullbom. "A crowd favorite is our beer and bacon station, where some riders have been known to spend 2-3 hours just hanging out. Obviously we'll have to forego that sort of thing this year."
Kullbom agrees that racers are receptive, with early registrations for the Lake Macbride Fat Tire Classic out pacing those from last year. "We have had many people express how grateful they are that someone is still willing to do the extra work and actually hold an event."
CRANDIC TT & Night at the Oval
CRANDIC Racing Club is thrilled to present two bike racing series over the summer of 2019, the CRANDIC Time Trial Series at Big Grove Solon and Night at the Oval at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids. Two very different races that we love dearly.
At first glance these races couldn't seem more different: the time trial is "the race of truth," just you against the clock, while Night at the Oval is track-inspired pack racing at its finest; the TT in Solon is along Sutliff Road, one of the most beautiful and bike-friendly spots in the Corridor, while NatO is in industrial Cedar Rapids at Hawkeye Downs, a race track typically reserved for cars, go-cart, semi trailers, and the like. Despite their differences, a closer look at these two races reveals both their similarities and the reasons that we love them so.
A great place to start
In their own ways both races are perfect for beginners. Hawkeye Downs is a big, wide track without so much as a corner, so NatO riders have all the space they could want as they practice pack riding and racing techniques. On the other hand, in a TT riders start at set intervals, nearing each other only to pass, so beginners can go all out without worrying about bumping elbows or touching wheels.
Just as important, both series are mid-week, informal events that are welcoming to beginners but hard enough to challenged even seasoned racers.
Simple, but never easy
Every wanna-be racer has ridden a time trial. The minute we feel competitive on a bike we test our strength on a set course by timing ourselves. A time trial, simple as that. What makes it hard is concentrating, pacing, and wanting to go faster next time.
While at Night at the Oval each race is different, they mostly come down to a sprint. But the nuances of drafting other riders, finding the right position, and timing the jump to perfection make every sprint different, and every sprint a challenge.
Hit the road
It may not be the sexiest thing out there these days, but road cycling is the basis of all bike racing. Navigating a cyclocross start is all but impossible without pack riding skills. In the right conditions drafting features even in gravel or mtb racing. Pacing well is essential to any race. And all bike racing disciplines reward fitness won on the road.
Bike racing came from the road. Its most essential skills are still right at home there.
Two series, too fun
CRANDIC is committed to making these races fun for everyone. For the crusty old roadie that's not hard at all: Yell "go" and they're happy, and they'll find plenty of competition at either of these races. For beginners – whether they're new to the road, or to bike racing in general – we say welcome, ride hard and have fun, and let us know if we can help.
We're CRANDIC Racing Club. We love to race.
Ready or not, bike racing season is upon us. It seems late this year, especially after a cold, long winter and with the absence of a few early season favorites like Kent Park and the Hills Spring Classic. Of course, we never stopped racing – with fat bike craziness, gravel races and trail runs, even an early mtb race at Sylvan Island – but now we're getting into the heart of bike racing season, also known as the slow build-up to cyclocross.
Iowa City Cycling Club's Chris Lillig Memorial Cup is just a week away, featuring the Iowa City Road Race and the Old Capital Criterium. It will be interesting to see if this year the traditional "I'm not in shape yet" finally gives way to legions of Zwift zombies soft-pedalling into the sunlight. But even for those of us who hibernate through winter instead, there's no good reason not to toe the line in an effort to race into shape.
The Iowa City Road Race is actually south of town in Kalona, the heart of Amish country. The race stages at the Fairview Mennonite Church, then rolls through one to four hilly 13-mile laps of beautiful farmland. Manure can be a road hazard, especially in wet weather. And races are neutralized for passing horses and buggies, as even the steadiest workhorse can be spooked by large packs of riders. Two waves of races, from 9 and 11:30am, allow for fields of every category and age group, from juniors to masters (including masters women 40+/50+/60+!). This road race is a favorite for a reason, and as long as the weather is good it should not be missed – Just ask those who have raced it in 40˚ rain!
The Old Capital Criterium is a .8-mile six-corner loop around downtown Iowa City's Pentacrest. Each lap – whether 8 or 10 for beginners or 40 for the open race – the 50-foot climb feels steeper, and the subsequent descent faster, until someone gets away or the whole pack sprints to the finish. The day includes a full slate of juniors development races, as well as free kids' races at midday for those 9 and under. Now in it's 42nd year, the Old Capital Crit is still a great rush for racers and spectators alike.
Sign up to race, or sign up to help out. But definitely make it downtown for this classic Iowa City day of bike racing.
Special thanks to Justin Torner Photography for all the retro race photos.
It's finally starting to feel like cyclocross season: days are shorter, I'm nearly recovered from RAGBRAI, and we're counting down with just weeks to go. But before you mothball your road bikes, remember that this coming weekend are Iowa's state championships for both road racing and time trialing. Both of these races are worth the trip just south of Iowa City.
Iowa State Road Race Championship
Saturday is the State Road Race Championship starting and finishing in Riverside. Racers compete over one, two, or three 32 mile laps -- up to 96 miles -- of an exposed and sometimes hilly course.
Each lap offers 600 feet of climbing, with much of that in three 100+foot hills lumped from miles 3 to 13. A few shorter pitches of 3 or 4% pop up in the last few miles before a mile-long descent toward Riverside sets up a flat, then a rise to the sprint finish.
It's easy to imagine an attack breaking away on those early hills, but it'll take a very strong climber to hold off the pack and avoid a sprint finish in Riverside.
The route seems flat, with just two noticeable pitches of about 15 feet -- a rise at about 3 miles in and a drop down to the river just before the turnaround. This could fool you, though, as the entire course is gradually downhill, dropping about 45 feet by the turnaround as the route nears the confluence of the Iowa and Cedar rivers. Mess up that negative split and you'll feel that 45 feet of climbing getting home.
Hope for light winds and pace yourself. Can you go under an hour?
As always, thanks to the Iowa City Cycling Club for these two great events!