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, and the town of Mead for putting on a tough race.