Race Team's Jeff Slaton on Cat's Hill Classic in Los Gatos.
Having heard that Cat's Hill Classic in Los Gatos was one of the toughest criteriums in Nor Cal, I decided to give it a go. It didn't disappoint.
The course is about a mile long, L-shaped and sits on a hill in northwest Los Gatos. What makes it truly noteworthy - and extremely painful - is the 100-meter long, 23% grade that must be climbed every lap. The road surface in general is bad, with numerous sections where the road has separated, creating cracks that can quickly grab an unsuspecting rider's wheel. Despite all this, hundreds of people showed up to race.
My race, the Masters 35+4/5 race, had just under 50 riders. At the whistle, the group took off. There was no moderate warm up lap. The first two right-hand corners were a gradual ascent with a short, flat section before the "wall." Not having pre-ridden the course, I didn't realize that at the third corner the grade goes from 0% to 23% immediately as the course makes a 90-degree turn left. Before the turn, everyone was downshifting madly to get into their lowest gear available. The problem was, when shifting into your lowest gear at 20+mph, you can no longer spin (unless you can peddle at 400 rpm). But, if you don't shift into your lowest gear, you may not make it up the hill, since it's practically impossible to shift when you're climbing a 23% grade at an all-out sprint. And that's what it was. Every lap. I thought I was going to die many times. I was hoping for a flat, or a mechanical problem, anything to stop the pain and save face. No such luck. I had to suffer on.
Another rider-unfriendly aspect of this race is that once you crest the 23% grade, it doesn't level out for another 50 to 100 meters. It continues climbing. Eventually, it flattens, and you make a right turn for a block, then another right turn into a four-block descent. However, it's not like there's a chance to recover on the descent. Speeds were 30+ mph as everyone was trying to move up or catch back on before crossing the start/finish line so that we could do it all over again.
The first 2 or 3 times up the wall, I was sitting around 20th, but it was hard to know for sure with my eyes crossing and insufficient oxygen to my brain. I was watching for any sort of large break (as if I had an extra gear in reserve to chase them down if a break occurred - hey, it's fun to dream). A couple guys went off the front, but it looked like they were going for primes (prizes awarded to the first rider to cross the finish line on a particular lap), and no one chased them down. (Eventually the guys off the front were reeled back in.) I gradually moved up, trying to figure out the best lines to take through the corners as the laps went slowly - and painfully - by.
With 9 laps completed and 3 to go, I was sitting around 10th place. The climbs up the wall had become less-frantic and steadier, but no easier. I was hoping to maintain this position until the final lap and try to jump on someone's wheel on the flat section before the descent. This seemed to be a critical juncture for a good finish. If you weren't near the front on the descent and into the final corner, you weren't going to make up the ground (at least not unless you were Mark Cavendish). Everyone else seemed to be acutely aware of the importance of this section, though. After cresting the 23% grade for the final time, people started picking up the pace. I jumped on as best I could and was probably 15th coming into the flat section. I was able to get on a wheel, and looked for an opportunity to move up before the descent. Unfortunately, we were strung out in a fast, single line so it was difficult. Coming into the descent, people were accelerating and hammering it down the hill. Crashes were narrowly avoided when a couple guys, seeking to move up before the final corner, went far left between some riders and the curb. Fortunately everyone stayed upright. Coming into the final corner at 30+ mph, people began their sprints. I went as hard as I could, but not being a sprinter, I was only able to hold on for 12th. Overall, not too bad.
After finishing and allowing 10 to 15 minutes for the oxygen-starved areas of my brain and body to recover, I told myself I didn't need to do that race again. But, as time and age make the memory fade, I'm now thinking I'll be there next year. With full knowledge of the course, maybe I can improve my result!