Unfinished Business – 2011 Killington Stage Race

I had previously done the Killington Stage Race, aka “The Beast of the East” three times and never once left the race without some unfinished business. The first year I lost contact the race-winning break after foolishly doubling back to retrieve a fumbled feed. The following year my front wheel inexplicably went out from under me in the crit and with it a possible shot at the top 10. The final year, in 2000 as a Cat 3, I went into the race having not seriously trained for six weeks. Bad idea. There would not be a 4th consecutive try at Killington as both the race and my racing career went belly up in 2001.

So when my brother told me last year that the race had been resurrected after a 10-year hiatus, my smoldering interest in making a return to bike racing came ablaze and I began to make plans. A year out, who could tell how well I would be able to prep for the race? At the very least, it would be a great opportunity to race with my brother Jeremy and an old friend from high school, Scott, both of whom had just upgraded to Cat 4.

After some decent top 20’s in difficult road races and despite some bad luck, I’ve been reasonably happy with my progress during this comeback season. But heading to Vermont for the Memorial Day weekend race there are many questions, as I haven’t done a stage race, a competitive time trial or any serious race climbing in 11 years. How strong would these east coast racers be? How would coming down to sea level affect my fitness? Could I go top 20? Would I get dropped on the first day?

65 riders have signed up for the Cat 4’s. Stage one is a circuit race, three laps of a triangular 18+ mile course totaling 56 miles.  Leg one is a relaxed and gentle downhill. Leg two an undulating 5-mile climb that tops out at 4% and includes a KOM sprint through the village of Plymouth, birthplace of Calvin Coolidge. After that a short and wickedly fast descent leads into a sharp right-hander onto leg three, a series false flats past a reservoir before the final spun-out-in-your-11 downhill sprint to the finish. Each lap will have three KOM’s and three sprints for points, the last of which being the actual finish.

We’re right at the front as we roll out from the start. It’s warm but overcast with some drizzle. Once we take the right onto the “climb” there are a surges every time the road grades up. These surges are actually helpful as they allow me to regain any position lost to the ebb and flow of the peloton. A couple K from the top and two guys break for the KOM. The field gives them some space and suddenly I find myself at the front with the pace downright congenial and 200 meters to go. The KOM’s are scored three-deep and I figure I might as well give it a shot and accelerate, only to be nipped at the line. My confidence swells that the mere attempt on the KOM came so easily, but I decide that to save my legs the remaining efforts are probably best left to those more committed to jersey.

The subsequent 1.5 laps are uneventful. I try to move Jere into position for the points sprint, scored five-deep, but bumble it leaving him to unsuccessfully try and close a huge gap. I sit in for the KOM, using only enough effort as is required to stay near the front. After the fast decent, a rider in hot pink rolls off the front and dangles a few hundred meters in front of the pack. Passing the reservoir for the second time, Scott and I try a more organized lead out for Jere.  Scott revs up the pace from long way out, elongating the pack. Despite his effort, it’s too far out and when I hit the wind I am obliged to hold the pace and try to mark any surges with Jere on my wheel. The surges come and I jump and begin to close down the gap on two guys pulling hard for the line from half a K out. At the critical moment Jere comes off my wheel to jump on that of another passing rider who quickly bogs down spoiling both their chances. Seizing the opportunity I kick a few times and cross the line for fourth. I’m on the scoreboard.

Me, sixth from left, on the wheel of the eventual overall race winner during Stage 1 of the 2011 KSR. Photo courtesy Gary Kessler/Killington Stage Race.

We catch the rider in pink but he doesn’t sit up and proceeds to single-handedly tow the whole field 25+ mph for the next six miles. As we climb up to the KOM for the final time there is a strong surge over the top. I have to push a little harder than I would like, but I use the momentum to power up to the front and bomb the final descent in first position. I open up a gap I had not intended but the legs are starting to feel heavy. I look back and see an attack coming on the far side of the road. I jump but cannot grab on as about eight riders surge past like a freight train. I sit up and jump in with the chasing field. The pressure is on now as we pass the reservoir in a slight uphill. I begin to rev up mentally for the chaotic finale when…BLAM!

My front tire blows out and it’s everything I can do to guide my swerving bike safely over to the rail. I hold my arm up and as the pack motors on but the SRAM neutral support mechanic is right there with a wheel change. He gives me a push, I put my head down and chase fiercely, the field now about 300 meters up the road. Just when I think I’ve got them there is another surge and…I’m left in the dust. All that work to stay at the front, all the concentration and vigilance to stay out of trouble and…well, that’s bike racing.

A couple riders come up to me and I trade hard pulls with one of them for the last several K. The third rider hangs back and I assume he is toast and simply hoping to make it to the finish. We round the final bend and I take one last hard pull down the finishing straight. With 300 meters to go, I hear the familiar whooshing sound of deep dish carbon wheels revving up a sprint and to my utter amazement, the third rider comes around on the left and “wins” the grupetto sprint…after having not done a lick of work the entire chase!

A classic Angel/Devil debate begins in my head. Angel: “Not a big deal, it’s a Cat 4 race and he’s just an idiot, you need to focus on what you’re going to do to get back into this race.” Devil: “F that, that’s BS and I’m gonna tell him.” I roll up to the guy.

“That’s weak man,” I say, attempting to restrain my hostility through clenched teeth.

“Huh?” He says, shrugging his shoulders, but I give him no out.

“Don’t pretend like you don’t know…you know and that was weak.” Devil 1, Angel 0.

I would find out later that Jere knows this guy–a good and relatively experienced racer as Cat 4’s go. Anyway, it’s a distraction and ultimately, nothing to be taken too seriously in hindsight.

I’ve crossed the line a minute down on the field. Jere and Scott finished in the field and upon hearing my story, Jere suggests asking the officials if they might consider giving me Same Time given that the puncture was so close to the finish. Although the officials I talk to seem apathetic to the appeal, upon checking the results that evening I see that they have granted my request. I’m out my front Swift R50 for the rest of the race, but a clean slate for tomorrow’s time trial gives me a needed boost of morale.

I admit that I’ve been dreading stage two’s time trial more than any other race this season. Ever since I did sub-par test TT a few weeks back it’s been in my head that this could be my undoing. I know this is the worst mentality to have going into a TT but I am hoping to make up for it with a smart pacing strategy.

The course is 11-miles, gradually uphill for the first half, then a 4% kicker about half way before an open flat section leading to rolling finish. We’ll go off every 0:30 starting at 8:45am and as my start time is the earliest of the three of us, I ride to the parking lot near the start where I meet my Dad and dump off a bunch of clothes.

I’m running late and in desperate need of a pit stop, but as I arrive to the start the officials are calling my number. With three riders lined up ahead of me, I take care of business at light speed and jog up to the line as the five second count down is going off. The good news as I pedal off the line is that I really haven’t had time to think about the impending agony. The bad news is that I’m in disarray, having to reset my computer on the move and realizing that I’ve forgotten to take my 2 lb saddle bag off! Don’t know if I should laugh or cry at this totally preventable series of noobish screw ups.

Having read so much about TT pacing, I go fairly steadily at first with a plan to gradually ramp it up over the 11 miles. Within five minutes, the guy who started just behind me passes as if on a mission. Within another minute I pass my 0:30—riding in almost a climbing position on the top of his bars—and can see my 1:00 a ways up the road. The shallow grade bites and my average speed drops alarmingly as I cross over a few small bridges. I have no power meter or heart rate monitor to pace with—going strictly by RPE. I reach the half way mark and struggle up the kicker, my legs feeling slightly wooden from yesterday’s stage.

After that the road flattens and I start to ramp it up over the discomfort zone but into a decent rhythm. I swing off the main road and fly downhill past a church where my mother, sister-in-law, nieces and Scott’s family stand and cheer me on. Digging deep, I’ve finally got my 1:00 man in range and come up to him just as we both cross the line. I look down at my computer: 28:17. Ah man, that sucks! I immediately start to parse out all the reasons for my mediocre performance: not enough practice and focused training, the bad organization before the start. Later on I will deduce that pacing strategy I executed is a great idea for a longer TT, but only an OK idea for a short one especially since it’s during the early false flat where you could arguably gain the most time.

Scott comes in about 0:30 faster than me and Jere another minute faster than that. None of us have even come close to cracking the top 20 and I sit in a forgettable 37th overall. The TT winner (the dude in hot pink) has posted a time in the 24:00 range, almost 4 minutes faster. Ouch.

Monday begins drizzly and overcast as we line up for the Queen Stage of the race: 60 miles with a sharp mile-long 8% climb at mile two (good morning!), a 5-mile climb at about mile 30 that starts off with some nasty pitches and then turns to rollers up to a KOM. This is followed by the feed zone, a short jaunt on a dirt road (what road race is complete without one?) and then a long drag to the foot of the beast: the climb of East Mountain Road up to the finish at the base of the gondola station at the end of the Killington Access road. The easiest way to describe this climb is it’s as if Flagstaff were flipped upside down with the super-steep part at the bottom.

I’m determined to fight it out. The pressure goes on right off the start on the “good morning” climb, I stat well but halfway my legs start to feel as if they have no muscle, only bone, and I begin to drift back. A split goes off the front and a few agonizing minutes later I am in the second group chasing on the ensuing downhill.

We soon catch them and things mellow out as the sun emerges and we roll easily through the beautiful green Vermont countryside. Even having grown up in Massachusetts I am still astonished by the sheer number of trees in Vermont. And farms, and general stores and little villages—it really is peaceful and quaint and largely untarnished by commercialism.

The pace is a steady 25mph+ and soon we are rounding the corner to start the middle climb of the course. The initial sections are a steep 10+% and I’m going to give it everything to stay with the leaders. I hang in for the first half-mile but begin to suffer as a small group tears itself off the front. I’m at the front of the chase as we crest the initial grade onto a flat section before we hit another roller. Now the pain really starts as the chase surges. I’m slipping to the back of the group but see the crest of the roller and get out of the saddle and lurch over the top, thinking that there will be some recovery on the other side. There is, for about 5 seconds until we hit the mother of all rollers and I pop, legs seizing as I almost come to a stop.

I don’t quite know what to make of this sensation in my legs, something I haven’t felt once in eight months of hard training. Later, an experienced teammate of mind would tell me it’s common for racers coming down from altitude to overcook it on the first day or two–as oxygen is not as much of a limiting factor—and ultimately blow out the legs too soon. I could have used this information earlier and have no idea if there’s some clinical proof to back up this theory, but it seems to jibe well with my experience at this moment.

Soon, Jere and Scott come up to me. There’s still a long way to go on the climb and we agree to work together with the few other riders here and try to chase or at least get each other to the base of the main climb. Nice idea, but within a minute or two someone starts to set a pace that is just too fast for my calcified quads. Up the road goes the ragtag group and I crest the KOM alone. What a meltdown.

It’s now very hot and humid and I with the feed coming up, I begin to contemplate the rest of my Memorial Day. Should I solo TT, or paceline with a small grupetto coming up from behind, the last 20 miles to the base of the final, brutal climb for 45th place? Or, knowing my Dad is at the feed, should I bail there and get a ride back from to the house for beers in the hot tub?  Hmmmmm. Well, let’s just say that I have still have some unfinished business to take care of at the Killington Stage Race.

I end up watching the finish from the proverbial sidelines. It turns out a very strong rider had gone to the front on the climb which would ultimately be my demise and ripped a select group of six riders right off the front. The field would never see them again and now that same rider comes into view on the finishing gradient, well clear of anyone. He ends up winning the stage, the whole race and climbers jersey–a pretty good day by any counting.

I will admit to feeling a little bitterness as I later discover the pedigree of some of these Cat 4 riders, many of whom are/were national caliber in other endurance disciplines, or simply very gifted athletes. For those of us who are of average stock, racing against these guys can be a discouraging experience. But the reality is, if you’re a Cat 4 or its equivalent in any endurance event, you’d do well to expect that an “elite” athlete (or two) from some other discipline may show up at any time, at any race and dominate…and then possibly never be seen nor heard from again.

So having been so thoroughly outclassed, I try to resist the easy lure of saying “I’m never doing that race again” or considering taking up tennis, or beginning the summer’s mountain climbing early. But these are the type of beat downs that I expected during this comeback and they ultimately serve as great motivation if they can be kept in perspective.

In that spirit, on the plane home I write up a list of things I learned from the race, everything from winter training to race execution. The fact at I learned so much is in itself a surprise given how much mental masturbation went into the process the first time around–the list takes up two whole pages.

On the bright side, many of the questions I arrived with have been answered. Some of those answers may sting, but with knowledge comes opportunity. When you purchase your racing license, there is no guarantee that you won’t be competing against talented athletes from some other discipline. It’s just a fact of life and you do your best to compete regardless: train, turn up to as many races as you can, seize opportunities that present themselves and hope they pay off when you commit.