The Natural State Criterium Series is a race that all locals and out-of-towners look forward to every year. Being my first year road racing – and my only other crit race being Tulsa Tough – I knew the weekend was going to be both challenging and fun. The Breakaway Cycling Team coaches did their best to prepare us for the hard efforts and technical riding of crits. My plan was to follow fast wheels to the front and chase any threatening breaks.
Going into Friday night’s Bentonville crit, I didn’t know what to expect as it was a Category 4-5, and I only had only Cat 5, Junior and training races under my belt. I heard that the course was tight and had a few concerning sections, so as my teammates and I approached the staging, we decided to take a warm up lap. This lap put us at the back of the group, and as soon as the race started, the tight corners and fast riders strung out the group. Within a few laps, there were multiple crashes, and this allowed gaps to open up. Being behind those crashes, it was going to take a lot of effort to make it back up to the peloton. Since the lap was short, within the first ten minutes, only sixteen riders of about 40 were left in the race, as me and many others were pulled from the race.
With the less than satisfactory result of Friday night, I knew I had to do better in Rogers than I did in Bentonville. I learned from my prior mistake and started towards the front of the pack. Since this was a Cat 5 only race, there were only about half as many people, but the pace was still fast. The group split within a couple of laps, and one of my teammates and I were in the front group. The course had a slight hill in it, but that hill grew bigger and harder throughout the race, especially when another junior, Oklahoma’s CJ Morrison, attacked the hill almost every lap. The group worked together to bring back these attacks, and as the last few laps approached the pace got faster. On the last lap, my stomach was feeling the effort. Around the last two corners I was toward the back of the shrinking lead group when Arkansas Cycling & Fitness rider Tony Burnett opened a winning gap; I didn’t chase as my stomach issue limited my effort. I was still able to get a good jump out of the last corner but not enough to close the gap. We spread across the road with my teammate Jacob Smithpeters coming in a close fourth behind a strong Walmart rider. As soon as the race finished, my stomach gave in, and I lost my lunch – but not my second place.
Satisfied with my podium finish in Rogers, I went into the Springdale race with an urge to do well again. Near the start of the crit, I felt a few raindrops fall from the sky, but the sprinkles subsided within minutes. The beginning of this race played out just like Saturday’s, with the group quickly splitting apart. Thankfully, I had a few teammates to draft off of and did not have to do much work during the first part of the race. When the group split, I was left at the front doing work with a teammate. With about ten laps to go, as I was resting near the back, CJ Morrison broke off of the front and nobody chased this time. Seven laps to go, we knew we had to pick up the pace to catch up to him. With strong riders from Breakaway and Walmart at the front, we were gaining some time on the lead rider. Six laps to go, the front rider of our group clips his pedal and slides out, bringing my teammate and about half of the group down with him. Four riders were left in the chase, fifteen seconds behind Morrison. I stayed out front most of the time, getting help from the Walmart rider. We were making up time, but slowly, and we weren’t going to catch Morrison as, with only four riders, none of us were wanting to sacrifice for the others. Coming down to the last lap, there was no chance of catching CJ. The last few corners were pretty tight, and I led the group through them to the short finishing straight. Out of the last corner, it was a tough two man sprint as the Walmart rider jumped to the inside. The legs felt fine and I had enough speed to hold on for another second place podium.
Overall it was a fun and successful weekend for me and the Breakaway Cycling Team, with many podiums and top ten finishes. I am continuing to learn how to ride on the road, race criteriums and race as a team. Thanks to my coaches and our generous sponsors for allowing junior cyclists the opportunity to experience the amazing cycling community that NWA offers.