First, a secret: in the middle of a long race, the elites don't really go all that fast. From what I've seen, the elites sprint the first 5K to drop all us intermediates and to 'shake out the field', and also sprint the last 5K for finishing position. If the race is 10K or less, that's a wrap, but if the race is significantly longer than 10K, and if the course is relatively short, you can wait for the elites to get over their first big effort and then hop on. The 26 mile marathon on the 1.2 mile LIRTSA course is perfect for this approach; I started off the race ( the "Summer Sizzle" -- July 23rd, 2000) and was dropped by the elites immediately, but I kept skating and kept watching out behind me. Sure enough, several laps later, here come the elites but as they go past me, I scooch on to the back of them. Now, in the middle of the race, they don't drop me immediately and I hang on for several circuits, skating with the elites but down a lap. This however gave me the best seat in the house for checking out the rarified air of the elite pack.
The elite pack is completely different from the intermediate pack. The intermediates are skating mainly to survive the race. Accordingly, with a common goal, the intermediate pack is relatively cooperative and supportive with people (mostly) doing their share of pulling the pack, followed by a sprint at the very end of the race. The elite pack doesn't work this way but rather is characterized by repeated cycles of extended periods of relative rest interspersed with strategic bursts of frenetic activity. A few people (usually teammates) will suddenly attack the pack. This may or may not be followed by an immediate counter-attack. Then everyone who survives the attack(s) rests until the next attack comes. This surge-then-rest pattern drops skaters who are too tired to follow the surge, or who are surprised when the attack comes and can't hop on, or who are following someone else who either can't match or is surprised by the attack. If a gap opens up anywhere in front of you, you are in real trouble. Unlike the intermediate pack, in the elite pack it is imperative to be continuously vigilant &endash; lack of awareness will drop you as surely as lack of energy will. The elite pack also seemed to have a little edge of nastiness to it that an intermediate pack doesn't have. For example, at one point on the fastest part of the course the elite paceline went dead-center over a slightly recessed manhole cover. Nobody fell, but several were shaken up a bit. I'm not certain that the pack was deliberately lead over this small trap, but I have my suspicions
All good things end and after a wild, exhilarating ride, I was dropped off the elite pack, after which they managed to lap me again, putting me two laps down. I later learned that a "flyer" had soloed away from the elite pack and had been completely forgotten by them, such that at the end of the race, the elite pack had an intense sprint for what turned out to be second-place. Such is the way of racing.
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