Seeing it though, no matter what: The 2012 Killington Stage Race, Part 3

“[Courage is] when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through, no matter what.” –Harper Lee, from To Kill a Mockingbird

Day three and the Queen Stage: the 61-mile road race. The festival of brutality will likely commence at mile 25, on the climb up North Road, and end up the dreaded East Mountain Road.

I am within 11 seconds of my modest goal of finally finishing this race inside the Top 20. The plan is to ride defensively and simply try to outclimb more guys than can outclimb me. Despite another fitful night of sleep, I feel pretty rested as Jere, Scott and I warm up by riding the 11 miles from the house to the start at the Skyeship Gondola Basestation.

Normally I wouldn’t bother to warm up for a race this long except for a cruel feature of the course: we will tackle the “Valley Park” climb, 1.3 miles at around 6%, at just two miles into the race.

The tempo is quick but steady up the climb as, mercifully, no one feels the need to turn the screws on the stage so early. We swing right and begin a long, gradual decline toward the White River. A break of two goes off the front and there is a half-hearted effort to chase underway. Ahead I see the race leader mixing it up at the front. I am content merely to turn the pedals as little as possible.

The next 20 miles are a nervous affair as we are riding on two of the roads that were apparently overlooked for post-Irene repaving. There are long sections of choppy and disintegrating pavement on the right side and numerous deep crevasses right down the middle of the lane. Were someone to catch a wheel in one of these crevasses at speed, calamity would ensue. I don’t even want to think about this possibility as I crane my neck around to pick up these obstacles in enough time to avoid them. Thankfully the field skillfully navigates the sections, aided by the lime green paint the promoter has used to outline them.

The official vehicles are up ahead with the break when we come upon a temporary bridge surrounded on all sides by gravel. It ushers the field to the left and into the oncoming lane. We round a gentle bend to see a truck coming straight at us. Shouts of urgent warning go up in the peloton and everyone dodges right. There is an audible mass sigh of relief along with a smattering of nervous laughter as the truck rumbles safely past.

Jere is at the front and decides to attack, taking a few riders with him. It is short-lived as the group bogs down on a sharp roller. The road straightens out and the break of two is visible up ahead, going for the points sprint only a mile before the turn up North Road. They sit up immediately afterward and following a half-hearted effort in the field for third place, we are all together.

I’m in good position near the front as we swing right onto the climb. It is an awkward transition from 20 miles of spinning in the big ring to the initial section of the climb, which is a mile, topping out at 10%. I grind away in a small gear and am able to maintain my position with a workmanlike effort even as an attack goes on the left, way over the double yellow.

We crest the initial wall and I anticipate what is to come: the several miles of sharp rollers that were my undoing last year. Here is the first roller and there is an acceleration as several riders attack off the front. Still feeling good, I surf it, drifting back a few riders and wary of gaps. Here comes the second roller.

Another acceleration as guys in the group respond to the attack. I’m right in there…right in there…right in…the sirens go off! My quads flood with lactic acid.

This sensation is unfamiliar to me and I cannot fully comprehend it, even with the benefit of hindsight. Despite countless occasions of anaerobic suffering in both training and racing over the past year in Colorado, the nuclear quad meltdown has never occurred—I’m simply either able to push the gear and hold the pace or not. In fact the only other time I have experienced this sensation was at this exact same section of road in this race last year. I remain perplexed by this anomaly.

I am now rendered helpless. My head is in the game, my lungs and energy levels are willing and like John Paul Jones, I have not yet begun to fight…but the legs appear to have struck their colors. Riders stream past me—big guys that “should not” be able to outclimb me. I can only chuckle a little as I contemplate the ironic déjà vu.

But that’s where the comparison with last year’s race ends. I bear down and push, hoping that Jere or Scott will come up with a group from behind. I trade pulls with another rider and we crest the next roller to see the main group agonizingly close.

“Get up there!” I hear Jere yell from behind and as hoped, he is here with reinforcements in the form of a chase group of about eight. I wish, but now comes the darkest moment of the race as for several minutes it is everything I can do to hold onto this group until we crest the top of the climb.

Relief on the brief descent. I sit in and recover, the main group now out of sight around the bends ahead. The legs clear, the storm has passed and soon enough I am at the front of the group driving it up through the feed zone. The field has gone up the road and with it, my shot at a Top 20. Dammit.

For pride’s sake, I will make the most of this race. I will tackle East Mountain and I will finish as high up as possible. A handful of us trade pulls at the front and over the next 25 miles we pick up stragglers until the group tops out at 15+ riders.

Soon enough we are heading up toward the left turn onto East Mountain Road. A round of congratulations goes around at the front of our group for the thankless effort of towing half the group to the base of the climb. Jere tells me that he is done and will granny gear it to the top.

In the end, East Mountain Road isn’t all that bad. There are several steep sections but nothing quite as long or sustained as Upper Flagstaff in Boulder, which I climbed half a dozen times in training. Granted, our little group is barely racing at this point and soon enough, splinters on the lower section of the climb. I pass the cheering family support gang half way up the climb, leap frog with several riders up and over the crest of the road, then descend down to series of rollers prior to swinging a left onto the final section of climb up Killington Access Road.

I muscle to the line, finishing strongly but in 38th (36th overall) and nearly 10 minutes down. In the end, only three riders from my group outclimb me and I have to acknowledge that there were several days of training this winter where I finished a lot more blasted. That said I have to reconcile the fact that, with 90% of my discretionary training this season devoted to climbing, more than 15 guys I beat in the TT were able to outclimb me on this day. I become a little wistful, wondering what might have been had I just been able to hold the pace during those critical few moments on North Mountain.

Minutes later, Jere comes over the line and sits on the ground. Lone riders continue to come across looking completely shattered. As rough a day as I have had the race leader has had it worse, coming in almost 16 minutes down on the stage winner. I suppose he is content with two wins out of three.

Anyway, it’s Memorial Day! Beers and a burger await at the Long Trail Brewing Company!

Epilogue

Although a respectable overall finish eludes me at this race, to overanalyze my performance this year would be a waste of time. I chalk it up to just not having the 5% extra I needed on North Road. Lacking the top end to compete there is likely a result of too few race/group intensity sessions in the legs and losing more than a week of training to illness a month before the race.

Although I cannot speculate what role the crash may have played in my ultimate result, I can say that spent the better part of the following week very tired and feeling like I had fallen down a long flight of stairs.

A few tweaks next year along with some long overdue good luck and I might finally get up there, hopefully as a Cat 3. As it is, the season is not even half over and there are many left races on the calendar in Colorado.

Special thanks to my whole family for the encouragement and support I received at this race and throughout this season. It’s a hugely selfish pursuit and my efforts to make up for it in other ways can only fall short.

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Do you want to cry tomorrow?: The 2012 Killington Stage Race, Part 2

Wake up for Sunday’s time trial comes early. Where Friday night had had been the best pre-race sleep I had gotten since…well, since I started racing again, Saturday night had been a toss and turn affair.  The sting of road rash and the incessant pounding of pulse in ears (as the body’s healing mechanism works double time to push blood to both tired legs and abraded skin) has me hovering on the brink of consciousness most of the night.

This would only be my second time trial this year and I had learned a few things from the Superior Morgul time trial the week before. The first was the beautiful concept of the “variable pacing” strategy.

In last year’s KSR TT I had followed the conventional “start easy, finish hard” pacing strategy. It’s a nice idea when you’re doing, say, a 40K (25-mile) TT on a flat course. Problem is, the Killington TT is less than half that distance at 11.1-miles. Also the first half of the course is more difficult, basically a 1-2% false flat culminating in a series of 3-4% rollers. The second half is flat and fast. This meant that last year I was going “easy” on the difficult part of the course and by the time I cranked it up it was too little, too late.

The variable pacing strategy dictates that you basically go hard when the course is hard (e.g. hills and headwinds) as these are the parts of the race where the most time can be gained or lost. On the easier sections, like descents, you back off slightly so as to allow for a little recovery. The trick here is to keep the speed up by getting as aerodynamic as possible while keeping the pedals turning over quickly, or what I’ve come to refer to as “efficiency mode.”

So the plan for this year’s TT is to start quickly, use the first mile to settle in and then crank it up over the first half of the course. Once over the Val Roc climb, the biggest roller of the course that we named after the adjacent Val Roc Motel, ease off slightly for a mile then drop it into a heavy gear and suffer to the finish. The goal: do better than last year’s embarrassing performance of 47th, nearly four minutes off the winner. Being a realist, I would love to finish inside the Top 30, less than a minute or so outside the Top 20.

The second thing I learned at Superior is that it’s no good to have a plan if you don’t execute it in its entirety. I executed the first half of that TT brilliantly, going hard on the uphills and efficiently on the descents. But I inexplicably lost focus in the second half, held back where I had planned on going all out and ended up crossing the line with way too much left in the tank. I got 15th there, a maddening 11 seconds out of the omnium points, setting off an evening of Woulda Coulda Shoulda rehash. I would not make that same mistake today.

Perhaps the silver lining to the Stage 1 crash was that we the victims were all given “same time” at the back of the main field. This means that Jere is starting 30 seconds in front of me and as a better TT’er, will serve as a great rabbit. 30 seconds behind me is the Wild Child himself, the instigator of the crash. Pride can only take you so far in racing if you don’t have the legs but to put it simply, there is absolutely no way in hell that I am going to let this guy beat me.

Jere and I exchange a few words of encouragement and I start my clock as he jumps off the line. I pull into the start house, clear my head and after five beeps, I’m off.

I usually feel like hell the first few minutes of any race that starts quickly as a combination of nerves and caffeine conspire to turn my legs to rubber until I can warm up and find a rhythm. But today I feel good off the line and I quickly ramp it up to race speed.

I am pacing only by “Rate of Perceived Exertion”, AKA “how bad it hurts” and have committed myself to not ever look at my computer or care one way or the other if I pass or am passed by another rider (that is, any rider other than the one immediately behind!). I have found both to be distracting and potentially demoralizing.

The false flat bites but I keep the cadence up and over the first few miles and seem to be slowly gaining ground on Jere up ahead. This is either a bad sign for him or a very good one for me. Soon enough we are swinging right and onto the rollers. I get out of the saddle and pound away up and over the first.

I come upon the gang of supporters (my Mom, Courtney, my nieces and Scott’s family) at the base of the Val Roc, flash them a quick sign and then drop into the small chainring and power as fast gear as possible. Over the top, Jere seems to be pulling slowly away as, true to plan, I back off slightly on the short descent.

Once on the flat straight away there is a light breeze and the going seems a little harder than last year. I press low into to the aero bars and start to ramp it back up. A rider ahead is in the process of pulling a Bjarne Riis, having come to a full stop with an apparent mechanical. I have to shout a warning to him when he starts to pull a U-Turn right into my line, apparently heading back to the neutral support mechanic’s tent that we passed a mile back.

Along this stretch I have to come out of position a couple of times in order to check for car traffic as I move out into the lane to pass slower riders. I am suffering now and bog down a bit as my attention span begins to wander.

I read a good article on the TT in which Hunter Allen explains “This is just a trick of your mind to get you out of your limit, away from that edge: ‘Hey, this stuff is tough, it hurts, I don’t know if I can do this…‘ and then you ease off of the edge and start to lose your focus–and that’s when you let go of your possibility of a peak performance.”

I’ve become quite familiar with that voice this season. It is persistent and clever and, at a critical moment of weakness, will hit me with a persuasive argument to relent. Though I do not believe in Satan, this is certainly the devil inside.

Expecting to hear the devil is half the battle of defeating it. The other half is to counter it with the meaningful things I’ve told myself when I wasn’t suffering. In this moment I remind myself that my family have all sacrificed a lot so I could be here doing a Cat 4 race that contributes nothing productive to anyone but myself. I also remember what I yelled to my brother in this very time trial last year: “later you’re going to wish you had gone harder so do it now!”

It’s a long-winded and melodramatic thing to yell during a race. It’s also true and a variation of something I heard a long time ago. In 1994 I was ringside in Vegas, running film at the IBF heavyweight championship boxing match between Michael Moorer and Evander Holyfield . There I personally witnessed Moorer’s trainer, Teddy Atlas, lay into Moorer when he felt his fighter was succumbing to the pain of the moment (I conveniently found the quote transcribed on the internet!):

“There comes a time in a man’s life when he makes a decision – to just live. Survive. Or, he wants to win. You’re doing just enough to keep him off you. And hope he leaves you alone. You’re lying to yourself. You’re gonna cry tomorrow because of this. Do you want to cry tomorrow? Huh? Don’t lie to yourself. Back this guy up and fight a full 
round…”

I don’t want to cry tomorrow. I push harder to get back up onto the wince-inducing edge. I pass a few more riders, small ring it up a short but sharp roller and turn right onto the twisting road that is the final mile of the course.

The asphalt is brand new—much of Vermont having been repaved after the devastation of last summer’s Hurricane Irene—and I am cruising now. I see Jere weaving through the corners just ahead and I bear down so hard that I keep coming off the front of my saddle. In fact the sharp pain of the nose of the saddle continually jabbing “sensitive areas” only serves to whip me along.

I thread the needle between two riders through a shallow S-bend, sprint over the final short roller and heave across the finish.

Never has a rider been so happy to get 23rd place. I know I’m generally good for a much better result back in Colorado but to execute a plan perfectly in a discipline that I didn’t train for and doesn’t really suit me, competing against the strongest Cat 4’s on the east coast, the day after the most spectacular crash I’ve ever been involved in, at a race that has historically had my number…I have to rate this as my best performance since I returned to racing.

I’m 2:11 back from the leader (the same guy who won Stage 1!) and only 11 seconds out of the Top 20. Interesting to note that the rider in 24th finished only 0.03 seconds behind me. It’s a razor thin edge of suffering and execution today. Jere finishes a few seconds back in 28th and Scott in 36th. Despite wind being more of a factor this year, all of us have improve our places from last year’s race.

Jere has suffered more bad luck by hitting a pothole inside 200 meters to the finish and cracking his rear Zipp 808. Having cracked his front in the crash, he’s now out a full, expensive wheelset and vows in turn to sell his TT bike at the first possible opportunity (look for a sweet Cervelo rig on eBay any day now).

Though the cruel Stage 3 road race—the one that basically ended my season last year–looms tomorrow, I will not be crying!

Oh, almost forgot: I put 3+ minutes into the King of Crash.

Bent but not broken by The Beast: The 2012 Killington Stage Race, Part I

1K to go and the field is rapidly snaking it’s way through the final gentle curves and down Route 100 on its way to the finish.

It’s Stage 1 of the 2012 Killington Stage Race and we’re on the last of three 18-mile circuits. I’m tucked just inside the middle of the peloton about halfway back and barely holding my ground, though it’s not because of the 40mph pace. Alarms bells are going off in my head as my field of vision successively tunes into a series of sketch moves by riders intent on getting themselves into position for the final.

Just up ahead of me is my brother, Jere. We had concocted a plan to do the same but the inner debate has begun. My gut says to drop back, avoid the sketch and live to fight another day. My main objective in this stage was to stay out of trouble near the front, avoid last year’s bad luck (an untimely puncture) and pedal as little as possible in order to save my legs for the more demanding stages to come. So far, so good, having only had to work for a minute over the final KOM sprint a few miles back.

The second objective was, with my brother on my wheel, launch an early sprint at around 500 meters. In theory, this would give him a shot at the podium, allow me to hang on to cherry pick an upgrade point or two and put us both in position for a late start in tomorrow’s time trial. Nice idea.

600 meters. Despite the fact that my brother is ahead of me and the field has devolved into high-speed chaos and anarchy, my brain counteracts my gut and I order myself to execute the plan.

500 meters and the left lane opens up just as we turn gently right to reveal the finish line below. A strong surge goes on the right but I jump left into a large gap with no wheel to follow. Colin Powell once said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In this case, no half-baked sprint plan survives contact with a brick wall of a head wind. I instantly bog down along with the 20 or so riders who moved left, including my brother.

400 meters and I’m already resigned to merely sprinting for a mid-pack finish and the 15 extra minutes of the sleep tomorrow that will be the resulting reward.

300 meters. A big rider passes me on the right, sprinting madly and shouting “Look out! Look out!” We, “the leftists”, are all well out of it now and I think “He can’t seriously be thinking he’s gonna win it from this far back?” As if our giving deference to his exhortations is enough to make up for a really late surge from the back of the field…

200 meters. He crosses in front of my line and tries to squeeze through a tight hole between two riders about 10 meters directly in front of me. We are headed into the sun and the whole horrifying scene plays out for me in silhouette.

The three shapes come together and violently collapse to the ground. My heart stops. In the milliseconds that follow I have enough time to grab handful of brake and think “NO. So close. It cannot end this way!” I’m locked up and going sideways as I torpedo the screaming heap at 45 mph.

100 meters. I’m flying. Blackout.

Killington is my nemesis. The 2012 edition marks the fifth time I’ve done this race and despite a few fleeting glimpses of potential along the way, I’ve never finished higher than 24th, having suffered and inordinate amount of perennial bad luck. After last year’s cataclysmic meltdown, I initially vowed never return as did both Jere and the third of our brotherhood of pain and humiliation, Scott.

Soon enough though I was analyzing my performance in 2011, dissecting my physical and mental preparation for the race and coming up with a new training plan. My parents (who live only a few miles from the start of each stage) offered generous support for me to attend the race, which if you’re flying from out of state, costs a small fortune.

Despite there being a handful of races on the Colorado calendar which suit my abilities much better, it was Killington—the race I have absolutely no chance to win—that irrationally fueled my offseason training. My logic was that if I could get in shape for a race as difficult as that, then decent performances at the local races would be an inevitable side effect.

Other than having an off-day at the Superior Morgul Road Race the week prior, this logic has proven sound. I have six months of training in my legs. Although I devoted 90% of my discretionary training to climbing, all aspects of my cycling fitness have improved over last year. My nutrition has been dialed in, I have sharply curtailed my alcohol consumption and I weigh five pounds less. My race-day rituals (IMO an underrated aspect of successful racing) are finely honed. I have a plan to, unlike last year, dose my efforts and conserve energy so as not blow out my legs early. Jere is convinced that we are unlikely to suffer the perfect storm of sandbaggers that wickedly blew apart last year’s race.

On the flip side, I came into the offseason having spent the better part of four months indulging in my two favorite deadly sins–sloth and gluttony–so I started training in October essentially from scratch. The early spring was a blessing for weather but a curse for my allergies. Losing ten days of training to illness only a month before the race has been a blow to not only my fitness but also to my training momentum. Similarly, I’ve come to hate rest weeks and the peaking process in general as the decreased hours tend to subvert my focus and consistency.

All this to say that I arrived in Vermont ambivalent about my chances to achieve one of the season’s most important goals: a Top 20 overall.

And here, on only the first day of the race and only 100 meters from the line, these best laid plans—as well as life, limb and bike—appear to about to become suddenly and violently undone by the actions of an overzealous idiot sprinting wildly for 31st place.

I jump up from the pavement really pissed off. The miraculous news is that I’m conscious, appear to have no broken bones and by some fortunate quirk of evolutional psychology, my brain has instantly deleted the impact and immediate aftermath (the flipping down the tarmac part) of the crash.

Although I would love to report that at this point I am simply happy to be alive, somehow the “that’s racing” equanimity eludes me and I let out a torrent of curses, mostly directed at the perpetrator of the crash who is picking up his bike out of the middle of the road. Spectators and officials rush over and I see my parents and sister-in-law, Courtney, running up the grass to our location.

A loud groan immediately to my right silences my tirade and I look down to see my brother sitting on the ground.

“I just need to rest for a minute,” he says, lying down.

What a catastrophe. Six riders of an 80-man field down in a crash out and two of them are us! Scott arrives on the scene having made the fortuitous move to back off and stay right.

I have further words with the offending rider, who adopts a “best defense is a good offense” strategy by suggesting that I should have braked sooner to avoid hitting the falling bodies, until the officials consider the argument sufficiently counterproductive to separate us. I cannot deny that I have a temper—it tends to be aroused by overt acts of foolishness that needlessly endanger and ultimately injure other riders.

As it is, both Jere and I have dodged serious injury. Later on, a forensic assessment of the road rash on my elbows, knees, shoulders and back has me guessing that I hit the group sideways, landed on my back and rolled on all fours. Jere has whacked his head and cracked one of his Zipp wheels. My right SRAM Red shift lever has been yanked out of the body.

The team jumps into action. Courtney picks up a enough bandages and medical supplies at the local pharmacy to patch up a small village (they were having a 2-for-1 sale—in anticipation of the race perhaps?) My dad brings the bike to the shop, which is literally on the corner just beyond the finish and repairs are affected. Huge shout out to SRAM neutral support who basically handed my dad a new (2011) Red shifter, no questions asked. I am now a customer for life.

We are bent but not broken and will continue on in tomorrow’s time trial.