They weren't racing for prizes, or for glory. The few dozen bike
racers who pedaled the deserted side streets of Devens on Tuesday evenings this
spring and summer were racing just for practice.
The weekly Devens training criterium ended its first season last week in a typically low-key manner -- no cheering, no medals, no announcements about sponsors.
Organizers Sal and Heather Ardagna of Fitchburg spiced up the season finale by turning it into a points race, awarding one point to the first person across the line in every 0.9-mile lap. Those who finished the one-hour-plus-one-lap race could redeem their points for cash prizes: $1 per point.
Thus, it wasn't exactly a pot of gold luring riders up the hill on Birch Street on the former military base. The real draw, as it was every week since early April, was the low-pressure chance to work on racing techniques such as cornering, sprinting, climbing, and team tactics.
"These little weekday crits are the best things," said Category 1 racer Eric Lemaire (Cox Atlanta Velo) of Jaffrey, N.H., last week's winner. "You get out of it exactly what you put into it."
The 29-year-old former pro mountain biker was talking about effort and improvement, but he came out even on cash, too. He won seven of the lap sprints, including the final lap, earning back his $7 entry fee.
Category 2 racer Chris Gullekson (Horst Engineering), 27, of Leominster placed second, with $6 worth of points. Junior rider Peter Lawler (New England Cycling Support Association), 17, of New Ipswich, N.H., an 11th-grader at St. Bernard's High School in Fitchburg, was third, winning $5.
Sal Ardagna said he started the training crit because there wasn't anything like it in the area. The closest one is in Newton on Sundays, when many racers are competing in real races.
The Devens race consists of a 30-minutes-plus-one-lap crit for "B" racers, meaning Category 5 (beginners) or unlicensed racers, and then a longer race, depending on the amount of daylight left, for everyone else. The "A" race last week had 19 starters in a mix of amateur categories, 1 through 4.
"This has been a godsend for the riders," said Dick Ring of Chelmsford, who was at Devens to work out on his own fixed-gear bike and then watch the training race. "I can see a difference on the weekends in the riders that have been here, when things get difficult and they're right there," said Ring, who is the announcer at many weekend races in New England.
Without his microphone, Ring employed his voice just the same, telling the lead riders as they crested the hill what the pack was doing behind them, and touting the potential of up-and-coming riders to the officials (the Ardagnas and Anne McNeill).
Ring had especially encouraging words for Carl Jones (Boston Bicycle Club) of Acton, who won a couple of the "B" races earlier in the season and then started trying the "A" races. Jones, marking his 41st birthday at Tuesday's race, dropped out after about 15 minutes -- the pack was going 27 to 30 mph for the first five laps -- but didn't sound defeated.
"Too fast for me. I get dropped, but I'm going to try again. I don't think they're a different species of being out there," Jones said, nodding at the pack, which slowed its lap times from an initial 1 minute, 56 seconds to 2:22 by the end of the hour. "You just need to train more and work harder."
At the 30-minute mark, Lemaire, Lawler and Tom Stevens (Gear Works Cyclery) of Concord broke away. Lawler won the halfway prime. On the next lap, only Stevens and Lawler were in the break, with an impressive 27-second gap. But in the next lap the gap shrunk to 19 seconds, and after a few more laps the pack absorbed the tiring pair.
STC Pro Cycling uses training races "to help out the newer members of our team," said team leader Matt Svatek, 27, of Acton. "You can never go as hard in a training situation as you can in a race. If there's other people around you, it pushes you -- a lot." Svatek won the Devens race Aug. 24.
A design engineer at Tass Engineering Co. in Carlisle who has been racing three years, Svatek credited training at Devens with preparing him for his two stage victories, a road race and the criterium, at the Tour de 'Toona in Altoona, Pa., five weeks ago.
"It's a good time," said Gullekson, who won twice at Devens mid-season but had no weekend racing accomplishments he wanted to mention. "I became a Cat. 2 this year, and that's basically my excuse," he said with a laugh. "I'm slowly improving -- as the season is ending."
"This is hard. This is really hard," said racer Jim Boudreau (Masters Velo Club), 49, of Lunenburg. "It's the little hill over there -- it gets you. It's good training." Boudreau placed second in the Sons of Italy Criterium three weeks ago in Rockland.
Gear Works Cyclery donated tubes, and Smartfuel provided energy food, for halfway primes and race winners at Devens this year. Next year the Ardagnas hope to have a big prize, such as a high-end bicycle frame, to raffle off at the end of the season. Anyone who has raced at least three times at Devens would be eligible for the drawing, Heather Ardagna said.
Kudos to writer and artist Suzy Becker of Bolton for organizing the sixth Ride for Aids Resources, an every-other-year fund-raiser operating quietly in the shadow of the massive annual Boston-New York AIDS Ride sponsored by Tanqueray.
Starting Wednesday, 23 Ride FAR 6 riders will set out from Concord on a five-day, 500-mile bike trip zig-zagging through three New England states. Thursday they'll ride from Storrs, Conn., to Fitchburg, with a lunch stop in West Brookfield and an afternoon rest stop at Comet Pond in Hubbardston.
Each rider has raised at least $2,000, and each of the 10 crew members has raised at least $500, with the donations to be split evenly among Project Inform, the Pediatric AIDS Emergency Assistance Program, and an AIDS service organization chosen by the rider or volunteer. Four participants chose AIDS Project Worcester.
Randi Isaacson of Hudson, owner of the Post Road Art Center in Marlboro, is the top fund-raiser. She hosted an art show and auction called "Wet Paint: Artists Against AIDS" that raised more than $6,000.
All the food, lodging, transportation and entertainment for the trip has been donated, and overhead expenses such as postage come out of Becker's pocket. Thus, 100 percent of the donations, with the total expected to top $70,000, go to the cause.
Friday night at the Universal Coffeehouse in Salem, the riders will be treated to a folk music concert featuring Chris Smither, Jennifer Kimball, and a surprise guest, another nationally-acclaimed singer-songwriter, who Becker wouldn't allow to be named in print. Concert tickets, at $20 each, can be ordered from the Widget Factory at (978) 779-0393. Proceeds benefit the AIDS organizations.