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.