There was just no time to react without causing a cascade reaction of chaos behind me. I gripped my handlebar hoods even tighter and exhaled sharply as I applied the slightest pressure to my carbon rim brakes. I could hear a similar squealing of brakes behind me—a group of another 10 women were thinking the exact same thing as me: Whatever happens, don’t crash.

This was only the second turn of a 30-minute criterium race called Tulsa Tough. And I had no idea what to expect for the remainder of the race.

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I have been a long-time attendee and occasional participant at my Austin, Texas-based weekly crit series, called The Driveway, on and off since 2009. Also, I’ve participated in a few crits in San Antonio, Texas, and as part of a stage race at the Tour of Corsicana, Texas. However, the Tulsa Tough crit was definitely the largest and most competitive field I had ever encountered—and my goal was simply to stay with the pack and finish the race.

My stomach had been in anxiety-induced knots for the two days leading up to this race, and at 11:25 a.m., when our women’s category 4/5 race started, the temperature was already approaching 90 degrees with 75 percent humidity. Add in the fact there was a four minute delay to the start of our race while we waited in the now-sweltering heat at the start line... I was terrified.

I had already not set myself up for success in today’s race by getting to the staging corral late. A few of my Category 1/2 friends had mentioned that in these larger crit races, start positioning is everything—and it’s first-come, first-serve. But, in true newer racer fashion, I got lost trying to find staging and by the time I arrived—30 minutes early—there were at least 30 people in front of me, waiting eagerly to start the race and not budging from their starting block position. Not good.

Not only was staging at Tulsa Tough serious business, but so also was the enforcement of USA Cycling rules for the race. Our lead race official, Jeff, told us as we waited for the delayed race start that racers would be pulled each lap after they fell off the lead group. Suddenly, things started to feel very real. I had a sock filled with ice stuck down the back of my jersey to keep me cool, and when I felt it drip down my bib shorts and splatter onto the ground as if to accentuate this very important fact.

Don’t get pulled, please, I begged to myself as I awaited the final 30 seconds as Jeff wished us luck and got ready to blow his starting whistle.

Of course, the race began with a ton of nervous energy—lots of braking in the early turns and fast accelerations out of each of those corners. I was not doing a good job moving toward the front of the pack as each corner came and went, and I found myself behind a few less-experienced racers who did not have great bike handling skills.

“Hey!” I yell at someone as they come dangerously close to cutting me off at the bottom of a hill going into the starting/finishing area. Without an apology or even acknowledgement, they took my line and sped off, with the rest of the peloton quickly accelerating in front of them. But this was definitely a “make or break” moment in my race—if I didn’t stay in contact with the last few wheels of the group, I would get dropped off the pack and would probably not stand a chance of finishing the race due to crit rules.

Did I mention the race was fast? Luckily I knew the “L”-shaped course from a smartly-timed pre-race ride the day before, and my training up to this point in the season had prepared me for a fast-paced race. However, after about a lap of falling off the pack and sprinting to rejoin them, I knew I was potentially in trouble.

Lap 2 started with a slight climb up the infamous “Soundpony Hill” course. My legs were already beginning to ache from the hard effort I did in the finishing straight to catch the pack, and now I had to stay with them—no matter what. I peeked over my shoulder as I crested the slight hill and saw a few other women struggling to remain in contact with the back of the pack.

“Let’s go!” I hollered at the tired women behind me, hoping I could motivate them to work with me and maybe even pull past me so I could get an opportunity to recover my screaming legs for a few much-needed recovery moments. Two women joined me as we descended the backside of the hill and turned wide left into the starting/finishing line. Maybe we had a chance to work together and close that 10 second gap as a trio and get back in the fight.

tulsa tough crit race
Tulsa Tough Crit
Jessica Alexander

However, it wasn’t going to be our day today.

Jeff signaled to us at the line and our race was over, a mere 12 minutes in. I couldn’t believe that only 12 minutes had gone by as I pedaled off the course. Disappointment began to waver over me and sweat profusely fell down my face and stung my eyes. Another 20 racers were cut pretty soon after, and the race finished with only 25 of 50 starters.

As I watched the fast and furious finish, I relished in the fact that although I had my first official DNF (did not finish) in my racing history, I also had built enough confidence in my abilities to race at the national level. I learned that I still have some basic skills to hone in on in my training—like sprinting! I know I need to be more concerned about positioning (both before the race and especially when the race starts), and above all, I need to fight as hard as I can because so will everyone else.

I’m definitely motivated to up my training game and perhaps even hire a coach ahead of Tulsa Tough next year (yep, I want to go back). I loved my 12 minutes of racing, and want to experience all 30 minutes of the exhilarating suffering that crit racing can give you. And I plan to attack the infamous “Crybaby Hill” course next year, and of course, try and finish.

If you are looking to step up your crit game as well, avoid some of the classic new racer errors I made.

1. Pack positioning is everything

With any crit race, you have to stay in contact with the race field. The best advice I have been given regarding that is: If you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward. So, always think about your pack positioning, even before you start your race.

2. Brake minimally and get your cornering down

Avoid grabbing a handful of brakes. If you are positioned well within the pack, braking should be pretty minimal and there shouldn’t be a need to brake at all in the corner other than to control speed while you corner. Along with good cornering, make sure you hold your line and don’t cut off another racer just so you can get to the apex first—this is an easy way to cause a completely avoidable crash. Keeping your eyes up while you corner and also maintaining good side-spatial awareness will help you avoid any potential touching of wheels.

3. Be a good sport

At the beginner/intermediate race level, we are all still learning and there is no need to talk down to other racers or even name call. My best crit race experiences are when I am able to communicate with other racers about what I am going to do, as well as keeping a generally positive tone in my voice. Think about it this way: It’s a lot easier to motivate someone to pull through and help you out in a race when you treat them respectfully, versus yelling or even insulting their abilities. Save the constructive criticism (or #critbeef) for after the race.