I had intended to do a report on last week’s season opener at the Louisville Criterium but two things foiled the plan.
The first was I’ve known from way out that this past week was going to be insane. I would not only be finally in the midst of the racing schedule, but also my wife was turning 40 and we were having a party on the same day as Boulder Roubaix. While that day in and of itself would be challenging—hard race followed by sorta hard partying–it was not nearly as difficult as the preparation and amount cleaning that would be required to get the house and yard in shape by Saturday. I wanted to be off my feet as much as possible on Friday, so on Thursday I woke up at 6:30 am and pretty much didn’t stop cleaning until 10:30 at night.
The second was that, for me personally, Louisville didn’t offer up a hugely dramatic story line. The highlight of the day was my [very strong] teammate Walter soloing off the front for the majority of the race while I worked to keep position up near the front of the field. With seven laps to go, the strong riders left in the group laid down the law for several painful laps and finally caught Walt with about four to go. The unexpected twist here was that by the time the depleted field caught him, we were all so blown that he was able to sit in for a couple laps, recover, and then uncork the winning sprint.
For myself, satisfaction would rest in the fact that I finished in the lead group of the two races I did that day. This is not bad considering about 2/3d’s of the field was left behind in each race and a 50% improvement over last year when I got sawed off 20 minutes into the first race. With almost no race-effort training in the legs, Louisville is a tough course. And with the hyped-up and technical Boulder following a week later, the start of the season would continue to be a baptism by fire.
It’s a cool but sunny spring day as the Sonic Boom 4’s get to the front of the line with seven riders in the race. The plan is, in the midst of this chaotic spectacle, to do what we can to help our two strongest riders, Walt and Kyle. On form but with the birth of his first child imminent, this might be Kyle’s last shot at racing glory for a while. For the rest of us, the idea is to survive first, then scrap for a top 30. Boulder-Roubaix is the first “gold” level event in the local association’s Rocky Mountain Road Cup, a season-long points series to reward the best all-around riders in each category. A top 30 gets you in the points and so that was my personal goal in this field of 84 riders: finish in the top 30 and revel in the minor points.
We will be doing two laps of the 19-mile course, which is a series of north and then southbound dirt sections (70% of the total course is on dirt) connected by number of east and westbound paved sections. Based on the few scouting rides I had done during the winter, as well as talking to people who had done the last edition of the race two years prior, the crux of the course seems like it will be the last five miles of each lap. Here, a short but sharp climb ushers us off the final paved section onto the longest section of dirt, which features a series of rollers, a twisting decent into the loose final corner and onto the finishing straight with about a mile to go.
As we are the first category to start and there are apparently some glitches to be worked out amongst the officials. After being told “30 seconds” three times in the span of what seems like 10 minutes, the lead official finally shrugs his shoulders and says “uhhh, go.” This has to be the most anticlimactic start to a big race I’ve ever had and I have barely time to chuckle before I am fighting for position as we approach the first turn.
The first section is mostly uneventful. I ebb to the middle of the field as if in the slow lane of a busy freeway until we hit the pavement where I am able to hug the double yellow and move up to the front.
As we approach a hard left onto the second dirt section, the apex of the turn is coned off. The course is open to traffic and thus the organizers are attempting to discourage head-on collisions by the respective fields into the grill of any potential oncoming monster pick up. Such a collision is avoided, but unfortunately the cones are not as from just behind comes the familiar yelps of panic followed by the clatter of bikes and thud of bodies hitting the pavement. Our first victims of the day. I have only enough time to hope that none of our guys were the ones making the thudding sound before the pace heats up on the dirt and I am sprinting to stay in contact.
For the rest of the lap, our guys are spread out as a couple strong teams dominate the front, riding tempo on the paved sections and dropping the hammer on each dirt section. I am near the front and a few carefully-timed glances back reveal the field to be largely in tact and as we hammer up and over the final rollers and come through the finish for the first time. I find myself oddly disappointed that the wind isn’t worse or the course a bit more selective.
We take the turn back onto the starting straight where Kyle makes his first jump of the day, keeping the hammer down for a minute or two before sitting up. I find myself on the wheel of a rider I recognize from the week before. I generally recognize riders for two reasons: they’re strong or they’re sketchy. Unfortunately, this rider is the latter and before I even have a chance to think “uh oh” he panics at some approaching chop and grabs a handful of brake. My heart stops as I instinctively yank left to barely avoid a collision with his rear wheel.
Not a mile up the road another rider to my right suddenly pulls out of his pedal and swerves at me. Somehow, he recovers and carnage is avoided. Although the pace is high, I commit to getting to the front at all costs to avoid this madness. Before I do I take a glance back and am shocked to see only a few riders behind, with absolutely no sign of the rest of the field down the long straightaway. Kyle’s acceleration has done some damage, but with 40 or so riders left and me starting to feel twinges of fatigue, I begin to think that a top 30 is going to take some work.
We take a tight corner at the bottom of a steep dirt descent and Kyle jumps again. With Walt just in front of me, I have to sprint all out to squeeze the accordion shut. I notice Walt dangling off the wheels a bit. I consider asking him if he is OK, but decide that I don’t want to put that into his head. Kyle is forced to sit up again as the field is content to simply mark the attack. The war of attrition is officially on.
We sprint up and over the scenic Crane Hollow grade and swing left as we rapidly approach the back of a red minivan, probably headed out on a grocery run. Chaos ensues as we overtake the minivan at the hard right-hander back onto the pavement. Most riders take the correct inside line to avoid the van, but I watch as at least one rider gets boxed out by the minivan and has to stop, turn around 180° and sprint to catch back up to the accelerating field.
It never fails to strike me how important it is in a race like this to keep fighting to stay near the front and constantly keep your head up to avoid trouble. Every acceleration, every technical section, every mishap, crash, flying bottle or other calamity big or small and one or two more riders are left behind. By the time we are through the halfway mark of the second lap, the field has dwindled to less than 30 riders. The same handful of riders have been driving at the front for some time now and they ease up for a breather as we approach the final five-mile section.
As we take on final paved climb, a few riders try their hand at pushing the pace but quickly fade back. I drop into the small chainring and feel pretty good spinning up the climb. We swing onto the final, long dirt section and descend gradually as the sledgehammer comes down. Most everything from this point on is a blur. I’m on the rivet on the downhills and it’s everything I can do to grab and hold onto a passing wheel.
A few minutes of this and the mind games begin. With 20 or so riders ahead I must have earned my top 30. “That’s good enough, right? You don’t need to keep suffering like this. Just ease off a little, it’s totally OK.”
Nope. I listened to that sh*t a few times last year and always ended up regretting it later. This year, this time, I will fight.
We hit the series of sharp rollers and I jump past several struggling riders. Cresting the top I latch onto the field, now strung out single file on the twisting descent. One rider in front me gaps and I skitter through a tight, inside line of a loose corner to pass and rejoin. Another rider gaps and I tuck on a fast downhill straight to come around and regain the line as we approach the final turn.
With only a small group of riders in front of me as we slow and safely corner, I suddenly realize that I’m in at the kill with a mile to go. So is Walt, which is good to see, but again he seems to be dangling off the wheels. I’m redlining now and feel bad that I am unable to help him out, other than to gulp some weak words of encouragement as we sprint hard up the final roller to reveal the finish line, a long 800 meters away.
There is a brief pause as riders start to set up for the inevitable group sprint. I have just enough time to self-flagellate and implore myself to maybe attack and set Walt up for the counter. Or to claw my way to the front and offer some kind of weak leadout. But I’m already maxed out and just as I shamefully resign myself to merely hang on for grim death, I glance up and cannot believe my eyes. With joyful astonishment I realize that the decision has been made for me.
Walt is 100 meters up the road and on his way to the victory.
There is a panicked surge as the riders ahead suddenly comprehend what has just happened. Two guys pass me on the left and I have to shake myself from a moment of dumbfounded satisfaction and remind myself to keep racing. I press but speed is hard to come by. I glance behind and see a large group kicking up dust and coming on like stampede.
My powerless legs cede ground over the next 500 or so meters, but I finally cross the line in 11th place, several seconds in front of the chasing group.
I chase down Walt after the finish and offer up big kudos. I ask him what was going on with all the dangling and he tells me he wasn’t feeling that good. This is a testament to both his mental and physical strength as on a off day he can catapult out of charging lead group to ride away for the win.
I’ll have to come close to that level if I want to break through the glass ceiling that is the elusive placings for upgrade points. As for today, I’m pretty happy with the result and the progress it represents.