The Gapers Block Criterium Series encourages women to try bike racing

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Competitors in last year’s series race at Calumet Park. Photo by Amy Dykema.

As I’ve written before, racing is the aspect of bike culture that I know the least about, but I’m always up for leaning more. So when I heard that Half Acre Cycling (sponsored by one of my favorite local brews) and Gapers Block (one of my favorite local websites) are putting on the 2012 Gapers Block Criterium Series at Calumet Park, my ears pricked up. I was also interested to hear that this series of “crit” races (laps around a short course) is geared towards novices, especially women.

The series takes place Monday, March 26, through Thursday, March 29, starting at 6 pm each evening, with 30-minute men’s and women’s competitions. Calumet Park, a lovely lakeside green space at 9501 S. Ewing, is 12 miles south of the Loop, and the organizers are encouraging racers to pedal to the event – pretty cool, since most bike races tend to be roof-rack affairs. If you sign up in advance, you can compete on all four nights for only $50 for men, or a mere $25 for women.

To further entice the ladies to participate, there’s a special prize for the top Category 4 (beginner) female racer, a prize drawing for women who show up for all four nights, and a special post-race discussion for women on the first two nights. At these Q & A sessions, new racers can get advice and encouragement from seasoned female competitors. I called up Half Acre Cycling’s Vanessa Buccella yesterday to find out more about the female-friendly aspects of the series, and I also learned about Vanessa’s own path from commuter to messenger to racer.

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Buccella after the Afterglow cyclocross race in Humboldt Park. Photo by Melissa Kelly

How did you get into racing?

I was always into riding my bike. When I moved to Chicago I really wanted to be a bike messenger. I thought it would be really cool. I tried to do it for a couple of months but I kept getting sick so I stopped, but I kept commuting. Then I started dating a guy who would go on long bike rides and I’d get jealous and think, I want to do that.

So I saved my pennies and I bought a geared road bike, a Bianchi, from Boulevard Bikes [where John works]. I started riding by myself but I wanted to ride with other women so I posted on Craigslist trying to find other women to ride with, because I saw other women on the lakefront riding by themselves. For some reason it didn’t occur to me at the time to join a bike club or a team.

Through that post I met Leah Neaderthal. She went on a ride with me and then right afterward she launched The Chainlink [a social networking site for local cyclists], which might have sprung from my need to go to Craigslist to find bike-related people. She told me about Get A Grip bike shop wanting to sponsor a women’s team. That never panned out, but I kept bugging Ken Mitchell, who was behind that project, to try and get on that team. He eventually told me to ride with Spidermonkey Cycling because they had a great group of people.

So I did, and I fell in love with group rides. I’d been on some rides with XXX Racing before but they were so big I felt kind of swallowed. But with Spidermonkey they were silly and not serious, and it was just a great fit for me at the time.

Then I started racing, and my first couple years of racing I didn’t do so hot. I wasn’t really aware of how much time and effort you have to put into training, although I still really enjoyed myself, especially racing cyclocross. I started training last year with Kristen Meshberg as my coach, which was not as huge of an expenditure as you would think it would be. It’s comparable to joining a gym, and you don’t have time to join a gym whenever you’re trying to ride your bike so much, so it’s a win-win.

I had a lot better results in 2011 and I joined Half Acre Cycling in November because they do a lot more races then Spidermonkey did, and they have some more women to race with on the road. I knew I wanted to be involved with getting women to race bikes. So that’s why I’m really trying to promote these Half Acre crits as a great way for women to dip their toes into bike racing.

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Last year’s Gapers Block Criterium Series. Photo by Amy Dykema

I’m also the Illinois Cycling Association (ICA) secretary now. We had our first board meeting yesterday. I’m on the communications committee for ICA as well. We have a lot of men who race but I really want to get more women involved. Bike racing is very time consuming, but in a good way. Now I’m interested in grassroots organizing to promote women’s racing, but I still want to ride my bike and train. So it ends up taking a lot of time but it’s really time well spent and it’s super enjoyable.

It seems like this is a particularly woman-friendly racing series. What’s the idea behind that post-race discussion for women?

This is a beginner’s race, and I know that in my first races I didn’t really know what was going on. I just showed up and started riding my bike and got dropped immediately. It’s not like a group ride, where if it’s a no-drop ride and you fall behind, people slow down. If you just show up and race your bike for the first time and don’t any support afterwards, it can be disheartening.

If we want those new people to come back, it’s important to give them a chance to talk about what happened, what went right and what went wrong. They can get some notes from experienced racers, maybe not personal notes, because we’re not going to have people there watching you race. But this will be a chance to get some feedback and a pep talk.

Bike racing is hard. People think they’re fast because they pass a lot of people on Milwaukee Avenue. I’m talking about me personally. I thought because I’d been commuting on my bike for X number of years I was probably pretty fast. But then when I went to race it was like, whoa, nope, not fast, not as fast as I thought I was. And that can be a little gut punch. It can hurt your ego a little bit.

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A group of racers in Calumet Park. Photo by Amy Dykema

So it’s good to know that that experience has happened to everybody – everyone’s had a bad race. Like I said, these are beginner’s races, so if you show up and you finish the bike race, or even if you just start it, you’re doing great. If you enjoy bike racing you’re going to be able to race your bike for the rest of your life, so there’s going to be plenty of time for you to do well – this is just the start. And there are a lot of experienced women who also come out here to get practice, so it’s not all beginners and you shouldn’t feel let down [if you don’t place well].

That’s especially why we’re giving a prize to the best Cat [Category] 4 woman. The Cat 3s have a lot of experience but Cat 4 is where the beginners are, so we want to give them special recognition. I’m also still at Cat 4, but I’ll be excluding myself from any potential prizes.

How many participants do you get for the series?

Last year the men’s field filled up. There were two races per day with a 50-racer cap for each race. For the women’s race the numbers were way lower with 10 to 15 people. So that’s why we’re really reaching out to the women. Because this is how it is across the board in bike races, unless it’s a really big event. And even then the numbers are far lower than the men’s field.

What’s your favorite memory from last year’s race?

Last year I’d been training with Kristen so I was faster than before. Knowing these were practice races, I wanted to test myself. One night I was coming out of a corner and there was a big tailwind and as soon as I got into the tailwind I just took off from the front of the pack. It was early in the race there was no way I was going to be able to keep that gap for the rest of the race. But for the first time in my racing career I was at the front with a big group of people behind me and I thought, this is so awesome.

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A group of racers in Calumet Park. Photo by Amy Dykema

That’s exactly what this is for. If you’ve got a few races under your belt this is the time to just say, hey, I wonder if I could just take off with three laps to go and hold that gap for the rest of the race, because it’s no skin off your back if that doesn’t work out for you. It’s a good place to try team tactics. It’s a good place to test the limits of your physical capabilities. And obviously it’s the best place for just getting out there and racing for the first time.

Also, for women who don’t have geared bikes who are coming from the single-speed scene or just have a triathlon bike or a commuter bike, we’re going to try to have a handful of bikes in different sizes they can borrow for the races, as long as they let us know beforehand. If you try out bike racing you’re probably going to love it, and there are plenty of places to buy used bikes, or you can do what I did and save all your money to buy a nice new bike. We don’t want there to be anything in the way of somebody coming out and trying racing for the first time. I don’t think we could make it any more beginner-friendly if we tried.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

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