Cat's Hill Classic

Course Description

Riding the Cat's Hill Course

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23% grade: a tough course..Cat's Hill Course

Riding the Course

The Cat's Hill is one of the toughest races on the NorCal circuit. Unlike many criteriums, Cat's Hill leaves no margin for error or tactical lapse -- one missed shift, one moment of inattention, and you can suddenly find yourself off the back of the pack. The course itself is very difficult, and there are very few points at which the riders have the luxury of a moment's relaxation. In places, the road surface is extremely rough and it is possible to catch a wheel and go down if you're not careful.

At the starting line, midway along Tait Avenue, you will notice that many of the riders are crowding the front row. They know that it's important to start the Cat's Hill race from the front, because the field always strings out right from the gun -- there are very few opportunities to advance your position as the pack moves around the course.

From the start, each rider in the field fights to get to the front before the Hill on Nicholson to avoid the inevitable first-lap traffic jam that comes at the start of the climb. In addition to this fight, the riders must watch for the pavement separation that runs down the middle of Tait Avenue. This separation, caused by the uplifting of the cement slabs that form the street surface, doesn't bother cars, but it will easily catch a bicycle tire and possibly cause an inattentive rider to fall.

A sweeping right turn onto Bean Street 200 meters from the start  and a brief 100 meter stretch to another right turn brings the racers onto Massol Avneue. Massol has the same problem as Tait -- wheel-catching roadbed separations. In 1978, National Champion (more recently Shimano executive) Wayne Stetina caught a wheel here, lost a tire, and ended up chasing for quite a while before he was able to regain the pack. But the separation isn't the biggest problem on Massol. Making a quick, accurate shift while turning 90 degrees left onto the Nicholson Hill is.

The Nicholson Avenue hill (Cat's Hill) is a gut-wrenching 23% climb. A "wall" in bikie parlance. Being in the right gear and exactly in gear are critical. Once you are onto the hill, there is no chance to correct a sloppy shift. The hill is so steep that it's nearly impossible to change gears once you've started climbing. When you hit the hill, you are committed to climb in whatever gear you're in. You'll find several riders stopping each lap because of missed shifts or thrown chains on this hill. Even if the riders don't have problems with the shift, they still have to make it to the top, 100 meters away. Knowing that they have to do it many more times doesn't help.

How tough is it? Not bad if you only have to do it once. And if you take just the right line of approach, at speed. And if you shift into exactly the right gear, and don't have to avoid anybody on the way up. Unfortunately, the riders typically have to do it 12, 15, or 35 times. The field isn't exactly cooperative, and sometimes you're not in exactly the right gear, and somebody in front of you falls and you have to maneuver around. Then it's lung-searing misery. In the 1979 race, Jeff Stevenson ripped the head tube from his Schwinn Paramount in a final lunge at the Hill. The grade is sufficiently steep that the riders have to distribute their weight perfectly over the front and rear wheels. If there's not enough weight over the front, it will lift off the ground. Lean too far forward, and the rear wheel slips out. It's only about 25 pedal strokes, but each gets tougher than the last.

At the top, your body aches for a moment to relax. Now is the time to attack! Just at the top, when everyone is hurting from the hill, the strongest riders try to escape. This is the best place on the course to move up towards the front, make up for lost position, or launch a successful attack. Nobody wants to respond. They just want a second to recover. Sometimes the stretch between the top of the hill and the next turn is the toughest part of the race.

Just before Nicholson intersects Belmont Avenue there is a dip in the road (watch out for the pothole). A comfortable banked right onto Belmont, then a bit of a rise before the fast descent.

Turning right onto Bachman Avenue, a combination of rapid acceleration down the hill and a narrowing roadway makes the riders a little uneasy -- you wouldn't want to fall here, on this pavement, at this speed. Bachman opens up a little bit before a high-speed right turn back onto Tait for the finishing straight.

And finally, the sprint. Coming through the turn first doesn't ensure winning; the finish line is too far away. However, it's important to be in the first five or six, because it's fast enough that the tenth rider through the turn won't be able to make up ground to beat the first rider to the finish.

The Cat's Hill Race is challenging to ride, and great fun to watch. Come see for yourself!