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.

Course changes, cone sprints and carnage at Deer Trail

I had been looking forward to the Deer Trail Road Race for two reasons. It would be the first Front Range road race this year that would be run on 100% asphalt (enter the carbon tubulars, finally) and the longest so far at 44 miles.

Also, this was to be the second stop on my 2012 Tour de Vengeance (now first, since I missed Koppenberg). In last year’s edition of Deer Trail, a high-speed crash close to the front knocked the majority of the field out of contention.

I myself was forced to choose between locking up the bike and barreling into the screaming heap…or veering off into a grassy ditch at 40mph, Lance-style. I chose the latter and was miraculously able to keep it upright. I then had to cyclocross it back up to the road to begin a long chase with a large tumbleweed jammed into my rear derailleur. Although I rode strongly the rest of the race, a mediocre finish was a foregone conclusion as the lead group had long since disappeared up the road.

Amped up by news that my brother Jere has scored a second place that morning in a race back east, teammate Fleetwood and I carpool out to Deer Trail for a 2:30pm start. Once there we meet up with teammates Aaron, Keith (who also got caught behind the crash last year and has similar thoughts of payback) and new teammate, Joshua, a neighbor of mine who has been showing steady progress in the big races. Only while picking up our numbers an hour before the start are we informed that the course has been altered to account for a washed out bridge.

The course is essentially a big ‘L’ with and out-and-back leg to the east, another to the north and then a repeat of the first leg around to the finish. The quirk of such a course is that there are three hard U-turns to be negotiated around cones placed in the middle of the road. Only the first few riders can make the turn cleanly and the rest have to fight their way back into contention after every cone.

What’s worse is that the guys in front know this and will typically attack after the cones, causing a whiplash effect in the extreme. Throw in narrow, incessantly rolling roads and the stiff winds typical of the Eastern Plains of Colorado (AKA Kansas) and you’ve got yourself a mentally taxing (some might say tedious? vexing?) race.

With the bridge out, the officials inform us that the northern leg will be cut in half and tackled first, followed by two successive circuits of the eastern leg. Quick analysis reveals that this will mean five U-turns instead of three. The race has also been necessarily shortened to 37-miles, coincidentally the same distance as both Boulder and Mead. So we won’t get our “longer” road race after all. This has me wondering why I bothered doing all those 3-4 hour rides this past winter (except that I know the answer: tune back here in about three weeks).

The race starts neutral as the motor leads our 60-man field out onto the course. The wind is blowing from the north and we roll along at jogging pace. With the roads being as narrow as they are, the only way to move up is, well…you can’t move up. I’m about 20 back when we hit the first cone and, as predicted, all hell breaks loose.  Large gaps open instantaneously and it’s a full-on track kilo effort to get back up to the leaders.

Sprint and repeat. Sit in, hoping that at some point the pace will pick up enough on the straight to allow for SOME advancement toward the front. A few solo attacks go a short ways up road, including one by Joshua, but the field has too much momentum on the downhills so nothing sticks for very long.

On the final outbound leg guys are starting to twitch. I’m comfortably uncomfortable, tucked in the middle of the field and starting to wish I had skipped this race for a training ride with maybe 8,000 or so feet of climbing.

I think everyone is so used to the wicked attrition caused naturally on a course like Boulder or Mead, that the blade of our tactical initiative is about as dull as a cake knife. Only the U-turn gaps have caused any attrition, but we’re so tightly packed in that I don’t want to take the chance to look back for a head count.

My instincts serve me well. On a fast downhill the magic elixir of one guy letting his guard down and another getting nervous while riding at speed within the group, is blended. Two riders up and to the left spontaneously come together and suplex each other to the ground. If the wreckage spills right, I’m in serious trouble and by reflex I get ready to execute the bunny hop of my life. Lucky for me but unfortunately for others, it spreads backward along the double yellow…

Indulge me now, please, while I step up onto my soapbox. I can abide a great deal of foolery in racing. Stuff happens, we all make sketchy moves once in awhile and crashing is simply a part of the game. What I cannot abide is a rider (or riders) that attack in the wake of a big crash in an attempt to capitalize on chaos and misfortune. While doing so is not against the rules, it is both lame and dishonorable.

Sadly, this happens nearly every time (in the 4’s), as evidenced by both editions of Deer Trail I have done as well as other races. And I have to say that most of the time it is an unattached rider who is the one attacking because, to put it bluntly, they don’t have to worry that it’s one of their friends/teammates left bleeding on the ground. Stepping off the soapbox…

Teammates are on my mind as I bridge up to the surging head of the field. Both Aaron and Fleetwood were back there and I can only hope that they stayed upright with a good roll of the dice. On the last roller before the U-turn Keith takes a dig on the front. It’s the most serious effort yet and attracts a lot of attention as guys scrabble for the wheel, but the status quo remains unchanged.

We soon reach the cone, repeat, and on the way back I see some riders being tended to by paramedics on the side of the road. Sure enough, I spot red stripe of the Sonic Boom jersey and as we approach I see it’s Fleetwood who has taken the spill. He’s sitting in the grass and sees me.

“Are you alright?” I shout as we pass.

He wavers his hand in the universal sign of “50/50” but then yells at me to keep going.

Inbound to the finish with a handful of hard rollers left and the field thinned out to about 20 now, I finally get up to the front intent on playing my card. The wind is blowing hard from the right, so I plant myself astride the double yellow and push the pace on a short uphill. I look back to the field in echelon. They eye me suspiciously and perhaps, my imagination suggests, with a bit of discomfort. But there is no effect.

On the next roller I try again, this time a little harder but still without effect. The climbs are just not long or steep enough or more likely, I am not strong enough to make an impression. Now inside 5K, I drift back into the field and come upon Aaron. He reads my mind when he says that it’s probably best just to finish in one piece.

None of us in this race are truly committed to taking a big chance, though I secretly hope that some beast of a rider will blow it apart on the last small roller before the drag to the finish. Such a move would offer us the opportunity to scrap it out for a decent placing, rather than have to risk a bunch sprint on a very narrow road.

As it is, the final roller passes without incident and with about 2K to go, the guys on the front start to ramp it up. The wind continues to blow from the right and as our speed increases, I notice guys on that side beginning to drop back. Other guys move over into the gap and so I am able to move easily up the middle, just behind the “sweet spot” near the front of the field.

1K to go flashes and we’re going good now, but I’m hardly pedaling and I think “I’m here so I might as well go for it.” Aaron is just in front of me to the left and as the front begins to surge I egg him on to punch it, hoping we can get out in front for a clean sprint. But he’s in the wind and with another rider right in front me the way is shut. More guys die away on the right and now here comes the jump.

Aaron falls back to my left and the rider in front of me cracks and fades right. 200 meters and now there is daylight. Some riders have a few bike lengths on me but I jump and spin it as fast as I can, outpacing the guys on either flank. We cross the line and I count riders ahead: 1, 2, 3, 4 and me. 5th! No one’s ever made money betting on me to place in a bunch sprint so I am pleasantly shocked by this turn of events.

Aaron comes in at 11th and Keith in 13th. We have managed to soak up our share of the meager Rocky Mountain Road Cup points on offer for this bronze-level event. Anyway, it’s enough to modestly extend our lead in the team classification.

Fleetwood ends up getting transferred by ambulance to University Hospital in Denver. Sketchy reports we get from a passing moto official suggest he’s shaken up with a smashed helmet and bit of road rash but otherwise OK.

With me driving Fleetwood’s truck, Joshua and I caravan to University and encounter Fleetwood sat upright on his ER bed wearing only his bibs and munching furiously on packets of saltines. He’s been diagnosed with a concussion and will obviously have to take some time of the bike. Disappointing to say the least but with any luck, he’ll be back in top form just as hill climb season starts to heat up later this summer.

As for me, a nice dose of confidence with only one week of hard training to go before two of the big goal races of the season: Morgul Superior and my very own annual Waterloo: the Killington Stage Race.

The Sands of Mead Roubaix

AKA the Mead Roubaix Festival Road Race. Mead is a small town about 30 miles to the northeast of Boulder in wide-open rolling ranchland prairie country.

The first incarnation of this race, held last year in lieu of the Boulder Roubaix, generated a certain amount of controversy amongst the local racing population. It is yet another race with a number of dirt sections, as the Roubaix moniker would suggest. The course in 2011 included three sections of dune-deep sand, which caused all kinds of physical and psychological trauma.

Despite the fact that I had beached it on the final hill each of the last two (of three) laps and had to hoof it over the top, I would fall squarely in the “epic race” camp. Not that I would want to do a race like that every weekend, mind you. The opposite camp bristled with moral outrage an uttered angry oaths at the promoter for including those sections on the course, saying in effect that the race was akin to an episode of Fear Factor for unassuming roadies.

Although I’m not sure of the details (perhaps these slings and arrows were too much to withstand?) the promoter of the 2011 Mead decided to give up the race and a new coalition stepped in this year. The big change for 2012 would be the elimination of the entire northern section of the course and with it, all the sandpits and most of the hills. What remained was a 12.5-mile circuit with two dirt sections, which represented about half of the total mileage. We 4’s would be doing three laps for just under 38 miles (coincidentally, almost exactly the same distance as Boulder).

Reports from people scouting the course began to filter in last week and the word was that the new sections of dirt road that had been added to complete the shorter loop were “not as bad as the sandpits, but pretty loose.” Uh oh. Suffice it to say that anyone expecting this race to be like Boulder with it’s short-ish hard pack sections, or to be a lot easier than last year’s Mead, would be in for a shock.

On Saturday, the day before the race, I head out and ride a few local dirt trails and a couple reps of the Koppenberg climb and honestly, I feel super. There are pros and cons about a Sunday race: the con is that you’re advised to go short and easy on Saturday if you want to have fresh legs. This squanders a beautifully sunny, 70° Spring day on which you might otherwise be out doing four hours in the hills. The pro is that you can train hard on Tuesday and Thursday and still do a “micro peak” for the race by resting on Friday.

Having gotten 11th at Boulder, the sensations in my legs (Euro term) have me hoping for a Top 10 with perhaps a shot at the elusive upgrade points, which with our expected field of about 40, will kick in at 7th place. As it is, you never know who’s going to show up, or what kind of luck you’ll have, so it’s best to focus on what you can control: show up ready to suffer, battle and ride smart. Results will take care of themselves, or not.

After a night of fitful sleep, I wake up with body aches and a sore throat. No! I must have caught a bit of the infection from my 3-year-old who had a fever earlier in the week. No way I’m going to miss this race, but I’m slow getting going and the idea that I might ride home from Mead after the race for some extra miles is now summarily rejected. Luckily, the race starts at the luxurious time of 11:58am and I have plenty of time to drink several mugs of tea and allow the Tylenol to take effect before my teammate Greg swings by to pick me up.

At the start for Sonic Boom Racing are myself, Greg and Cris, the three of us veterans of many an ill-fated Sunday training ride this winter. Our strategy is the same as Boulder: stay up front and out of trouble and play it by ear.

The pace is modest on the first few miles of asphalt, with the obligatory young guns pulling hard tempo on the front “just because.” The speed picks up as we approach the first section of dirt when suddenly one of the young guns takes a right turn where we’re supposed to go straight. There is a burst of shouting from the pack and realizing his mistake, he overcorrects on the gravel and piles it up, taking a few other riders with him. Welcome to Mead.

We clear a few gentle turns and once on the straightaway, several flahutes power to the front and drill it. Instantly I realize that reports of the course’s demise are not exaggerated as I struggle to keep the bike moving forward at the necessary speed and in a consistently straight direction. It’s a long drag of a false flat and there is no clean line, or if there is I can’t see it as I am tucked in behind a line of riders in the middle of the field.

I see Greg riding strongly a few riders ahead and Cris comes past me in a line of guys moving up in line to our left. We uncomfortably negotiate alternating sections of loose sand and washboard. I’m redlining it when the gradient finally relents and we barrel down into a right turn and back onto pavement.

Just time enough now for a breath and sip or two before we swing right back onto dirt and the process repeats itself. This time, we bottom out on a right-hander and I power slide on loose gravel over hardpack. Up ahead is the only significant hill of the day and as was the case at Boulder, I am able to use it to regain some position near the front.

We swing left onto a straight of several miles of continued dirt. This is the crux of the course: basically a longer and harder version of the first section with it’s false flat of sand, washboard and now a light but noticeable diagonal crosswind. Guys dodge right and left trying to find a clean line and eventually two competing trains form on either side of the road with me on the left.

As if the pace and terrain aren’t challenging enough, several times my front wheel starts to wash out and I have to stop pedaling in order to keep the bike tracking straight. Following each of these washouts is an agonizing few moments of anaerobic effort to close down the gap that has necessarily opened. On this stretch I have the depressing epiphany that powering over several miles of sandy false flat is simply not a strength. I feel like the obscure Spanish climber, tortured in his crossing of the forêt.

As we approach the mercy that is the right turn onto the paved finishing stretch, the train on the right has gained an advantage and clears the corner with a gap of several seconds. I quickly count their number as six and as our train clears the turn with myself in fourth position, I look behind to see no one. That’s a problem.

Greg is with me and we try to organize our little group for the chase, but it’s haphazard and the leaders begin to pull away. As we near the end of lap one, a larger group catches us from behind. Thankful for the help, I let everyone know that if we’re going to chase back on, now is the time. We drive for the next half of a lap but lack the necessary firepower, organization and will.

I’ve been at the limit for the better part of a lap now and when Greg drifts back, still looking strong, I admit to him that I can’t keep up this pace for the rest of the race. On the sand it’s all I can do to hang with the bigger riders. I try to make up for this weak effort by taking a few pulls on the intervening paved sections, but it’s all to no avail as the leaders disappear up the road for good.

Onto lap three we go. The pace has slackened and a plan is afoot. With six up the road and eight in our group, we are only one dropped rider shy of guaranteeing Greg and I the meager consolation of a handful of points in the local association’s Rocky Mountain Road Cup competition. Mead is a “bronze” event in the Cup, which means that points go 13 deep. Not to mention there are still four places in the Top 10 to sort out.

I tell Greg that the next time we hit the climb I’m going to attack and suggest that he follow whatever wheels come after me. I’m thinking that with a couple miles of sand between the top of the climb and the finish I’ve got little chance to stay away. Best case scenario, Greg can sit on with the big guys forced to chase and then take them out in the final.

Right before the base of the climb I entreat the aid of a strong racer, Brendan from Natural Grocers, to help me in this scheme. He agrees and we make our move, taking one other rider with us.

Up to the top where we swing left. I’m not looking back, but Brendan tells me we’ve got our gap. The three of us trade pulls on the dirt but it’s impossible to keep a tight formation in the sand and we end up all over the road. At one point Brendan is ten feet in front going strongly and I have to claw back up to his wheel.

I look back and can see the remnant of the chase formed up and coming for us, but as we hit the turn onto the finishing stretch I see that they’re busted up all over the shop. We’ve got our Top 10.

We paceline smoothly for about a mile and then start to look at each other a bit. While not in at the kill, there is a whole upgrade point on the line here. The finish line comes into view up ahead, and I start to think about positioning myself for a smart sprint. I come through behind the third rider, who has taken a tentative pull and before my brain even knows what’s happening, I’m launching it.

I pass the 1K to go sign and there’s a brief moment of doubt, having not thought it out that maybe I was attacking too early. I look back and though the two are in pursuit, a sense of confidence comes over me as I think “no worries, this will be just like cherrypicking a Strava segment back home.”

I am able to hold my gap to the line and cross over relishing my first Top 10 of the comeback. I turn into town and see Cris standing on the sidewalk, having suffered a puncture on the first lap. Greg comes in a minute or so later having pulled off his best road result yet at 11th.

Checking the results afterward, I am surprised to see that I’ve gotten the bonus of 6th place—either I miscounted the lead group or one of its riders foundered. Anyway, it’s good enough for two coveted upgrade points and an excellent shot for the morale as we head into the wheelhouse of the early racing season. Koppenberg is next…more dirt!

In the meantime, thanks to RallySport Racing, cyclingevents.com and the town of Mead for putting on a tough race.

2012 Boulder Roubaix

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.

On Walt's wheel at the Louisville Crit. Photo: Mountain Moon Photography.

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.

In at the kill in 2012

The release of the preliminary racing schedule for the upcoming road season is always one of the most exciting moments of offseason. This will be my second offseason spent training through the apparent six-month Colorado winter, so the population of the race calendar and it’s associated boost in morale comes at the perfect moment: just as the winter doldrums are setting in and when I would otherwise need to be forced by sharpened pike point onto the trainer.

Unlike last year, when I was returning to racing after six years of enthusiastic pursuit of my two favorite deadly sins (sloth and gluttony), I have a season under my tightened belt and the new schedule inspires excitement and anticipation rather than fear and dread. So as I pencil races into the periodization schedule, it’s a good time to think about my goals for 2012 and what it will take to achieve them.

Having already been a Cat 3 at one point in my life, I have to admit that regaining this status has been a strong undercurrent of motivation since returning to racing. Cat 4 has been the de facto entry-level category here in CO (thankfully about to change due to reintegration with USAC) with its associated sketchiness and stigma and it is very natural for riders to want to upgrade to 3’s by any means necessary.

That said, I decided that I would rather be process oriented and really earn the upgrade, with the objective to be “in at the kill” in a handful of races that suit me and inspire the imagination. Basically, train to be strong enough to find myself in the Top 10 near the end of any hard road race, with a crack at the places…or better, dare I dream. Let the points come as they may.

Some of the races I would love to do well in will be new to me, like Morgul and Salida. With others, I’m looking for a little payback from last year. I was feeling good at Deer Trail but had to steer off into a grassy ditch at 40 mph to avoid a fearful crash a few riders in front of me. At Koppenberg I was very comfortably at the head of affairs on the third lap—the lead group of 15 having shed more than 2/3d’s of the field inside two laps—when I rolled over what appears to have been a the blade of a machete, or so the gash through my front tubular would have seemed to indicate. At Hugo I raced strongly and sensibly for 76 miles only completely lose my mind with a K to go when I jumped for it…and got swarmed 300 meters later.

Getting points in any of these races will be no small task, even with optimal preparation. Even in the 4’s, competition for Top 10’s is fierce for racers of a modest athletic pedigree. There are usually a handful of very strong riders soaking up the places as they blow their way through the lower categories.

This is especially true during the first third of the season where a handful of guys come flying out of the offseason looking get to get those last few points toward the upgrade. It is also true at the higher profile races which often compel one or two of the Boulder area’s high population of elite endurance athletes to come out and have a go at an amateur road race, usually with devastating consequences to the rest of us punters.

So, how to compete?

Training is obviously a no-brainer, but I’ve seen guys train intelligently, consistently and tenaciously throughout the entire offseason…only to race in exactly the opposite way once it actually counts. I was guilty of this to extent myself in 2011.

It is realistic to assume that if I wish to place consistently and get enough points for the upgrade, at some point during the upcoming season I will have to put the training dogma aside, see the potential in every race I enter, work with my teammates and with gritted teeth seize whatever opportunities come my way. Or create them. In short, I will have to race my bike, take some calculated risks and be willing to suffer.

Hopefully places, points, glory and an upgrade will be the natural outcome. If not, so be it.  I read a great quote the other day from Mario Cipollini, when asked how, in his prime, he might do in a hypothetical sprint against Mark Cavendish. His answer summed up the mentality I will cultivate in 2012: “I don’t feel inferior and I wouldn’t start already beaten…”