The Cherry Blossom Challenge is one of the most exciting early races of every year. It represents the culmination of the Branchbrook Park spring training series, and acts as the kickoff to racing in New Jersey. As an added bonus, much like the spring classics in Europe, the weather is rarely “perfect.” This year’s race was no different, with gusty head and cross winds typical of April racing.
The race started off as any other, with the sound of 50 or so riders clicking into our pedals and taking off. As far courses go, Branchbrook Park is a simple oval, marked with one 90-degree left hander and squiggly straights. I tend to take a cautious approach to big races such as Cherry Blossom, and so I am hanging out in the back taking the temperature of the field. A few attacks go, but they are being stopped by the wind.
Something else is happening because of the wind though, which draws my attention almost constantly. The wind is causing the field to accelerate and then slow down abruptly, which has a tendency to cause crashes. And sure enough, on the back straight, it happens and a rider is shot out the back as he tries to grasp at the straws of balance, making a stand against the inevitable smack of the pavement. Worse yet, I’m headed right for him! I slam on my brakes, locking the rear wheel which, of course, lessens my ability to turn. And so now my rear wheel is sliding sideways forward and pushing me towards him. I notice this, and correct the braking, straighten the bike and roll around the rider who is still struggling. I get back in the field, and a few more crashes occur while the laps while down – I make it safely through or around them.
With three to go, I know the clock is counting down and my legs are getting restless. It’s time to give it a go and my door opens up near the end, right before the section of painful headwinds. The right side of the road is clear and I’m easily moving up as the field slows down, so I push on the pedals and make the move. As others scream out “RIGHT! ON THE RIGHT” I quietly launch off the front. Making it through the finishing straight with 2 laps to go I look back and see that I’m clear with one other person. We wrestle our bikes in the wind in an attempt to find a rhythm. So much of whether a break succeeds depends on the ability of two complete strangers to work together. We struggle, but we aren’t being caught and so we press on. The laps tick down and we finally enter the last lap with a slightly smaller gap to the field. After a half a lap we have another rider join us, but the gap is narrowing fast. The field catches us by the 90-degree turn. It’s over. The chance at an upset has ended. The sprinters will have their day.
At this point I am gassed as the field winds up for the sprint and I am left sifting through and out the back. As hard as I push, I cannot keep up and will not be able to contest the sprint. As I sit up, happy with the efforts made, one final crash fires off, sending a ball of humans and carbon rolling across the field. I’m happy to have tried my hardest, and happy to have finished rubber side down. On to the next race!