Mar 14, 2011

Madera stage race report

“Umm, it’s still dark. I wonder what time it is?” – I think to myself as I wake up in our hotel room in Madera on Saturday. IPhone tells me it’s 5:15, exactly 15 minutes before the alarm was set to ring. Might as well get up, and out of bed, and start getting ready for the first race. Who the hell thought it would be a good idea to have a crit at 7:30 in the morning? And why do Cat. 4s have to go before Cat. 5s? I’m not trying to say that Cat. 4s are some hot-ticket item, but aren’t those races we’ve done to get where we are worth at least an extra 40 minutes of sleep? Apparently not.

I usually don’t have a big meal if I don’t have at least two hours to digest it before the race, so I snacked on a banana, a cereal bar and a Forze nut bar before the race. I figured it would be enough glycogen to get me through 45 minutes of racing.

The sun was just coming up as I parked at registration.

The Crit

I got to staging around 6:15 with plenty of time for registration, warm-up, a few bathroom breaks and a calm and organized getting ready process. I had taken the Thursday before off the bike and went for a relatively easy ride on Friday just to keep the blood flowing in the legs. The warm-up felt good, the watts were there, the HR was moving as it’s supposed to, so physically I knew I was where I needed to be.

The one good thing about being the first group to race the crit was the fact that I was able to take a couple of laps around the course and see what it has to offer, as well as scout out the railroad tracks I’d be going over, and over, and over. It was a four-corner crit, with very wide lanes and corners – it looked like it was going to be fast.

We all line up, get our instructions, the whistle blows and off we go. At stake in the crit were two five-second premes and 20-, 10- and 5-second bonuses for the top three places.

This being only my second crit, I don’t really have a clue as to what the hell is going on in the race and I’m not afraid to admit it. In this race, however, staying at the front and moving around the field wasn’t as much of an issue as at Merco because we weren’t spread out curb to curb. Nevertheless, I really couldn’t find a place where I was comfortable, or a place from which I thought I would be competitive. I went on the nose a couple of times, one of which was right before the bell rang for a preme lap – well, you can guess how that ended.

One exciting, if that’s a right word to use, moment in the crit was when a Mike’s Bikes rider next to me went to accelerate and his bike bucked like a bronco, which caused him to pull over for a mechanical. I say exciting because he was about five feet to my right and my heart jumped about five beats when I saw him do it. As I later found out, his rear wheel fell out of his drops and the referee would not let him take a free lap. While unfortunate for him, the referee was actually correct. If the mechanical is caused by you, e.g., bolts not tight enough or a tubular becoming unglued, that is not the type of mishap for which a free lap is awarded. Now, if your wheel disintegrates under you, or you simply get a flat, that’s another story.

Another thing that came across my mind as we were going around in circles is that I was really bored and that could be dangerous because with the high-speed corners, it’s important to always pay attention. So around and around we went some more (if this description sounds boring, you’re getting the gist of how I felt during), and then finally the bell for the final lap was rung. I was near the front as we were going into the last corner, but the group bunched up and it looked like a ton of people were gunning for the same line. If all I was racing was a crit, maybe I would have been more aggressive, but with two more races to go, I eased off and came across the finish with the pack. To my later surprise, the tail end of the pack somehow got 10 seconds tacked on to our cumulative time. Those 10 seconds ultimately didn’t matter, but I was still a bit confused as to how that time was calculated.

The post crit and pre TT

It was abundantly clear that I wasn’t in any of the top three positions, in fact I ended up 29th, so I didn’t bother sticking around and headed back to the hotel for the complimentary breakfast. I was glad to have the crit behind me and looking forward to my favorite disciplines yet to come, the TT and the RR.

I brought my bike up to the room and went to feast. It was around nine and I was starving. I had a waffle with syrup, two stuffed crossants, a banana and a yogurt before I felt satiated enough to continue with my day. I went back up to the room, grabbed my TT bike and headed out to the next scheduled event.

I got to the TT staging area around 9:50, or ten minutes before the first wave and parked among the P/1/2 guys getting ready to roll out for their races. My start wasn’t until 12:06, so I had plenty of time to set up and get ready. The first thing I did (after making a mandatory bathroom pit-stop) was get my bike and wheels ready for the race. Then, I took a seat on the rear bumper of my car and started to massage my legs with my roller stick.

I had a dilemma. I know how to warm up for a TT, but I’ve never done a TT warm up after having done a hard crit just hours prior. Do I go as hard in the warm-up as I usually do, or do I go easier, how long should my threshold efforts be? After talking to a few buddies at the race, I decided to go long, but easier than I would have normally.

The TT

I got on the trainer and figured I’d take about 30 minutes to warm up, 10 minutes of easy pedal at about 50 percent, followed by some efforts and a few minutes of pedaling after. The legs felt surprisingly good and seemed to be primed for a hard effort on the bike. “Good,” I thought to myself, “the waffle must be making it through my blood stream nicely.” I got off the bike with about 15 minutes until my start, threw on my race rear wheel and started to take a roll toward the bathroom. After a few pedal strokes, I felt something snag. I let up and tried pedaling again, another snag. I looked down, but couldn’t see what was wrong. I quickly got the work stand out of my car, threw my TT bike up there and immediately located the problem, the chain was stuck between the chainrings – weird, huh? I pulled it out, shifted into my big ring (the only one I intended on using) and went on my way. A trip to the bathroom, then a roll to the start and I was ready to go.

As always, I was a few minutes early to the start, so I rolled around a bit and went back when there were about 5 people ahead of me, which meant it was about 2.5 minutes till go time. The guy ahead of me went, I rolled to the line, the guy behind me grabbed my seatpost to give me a hold. I waited for the 15-second call to clip in my other leg, rotated to 3 and 9 and waited for it. Three, two, one – go! Off I went.

I got up to speed quickly, pushing a big gear and going at over 27mph with a slight cross wind coming over my left shoulder. The wind was from the north west and the race course was a trapezoid (you guys remember what that is, right?), with the first leg heading west, the second south, the third west and the fourth northwest. I knew that this was the course where you had to go hard right off the bat, there was no pacing here, otherwise, I’d be losing to the field immediately.

I passed my 30-second man on the first leg, and right after I noticed a visitor on my right forearm. It was a bee. I blew on it a couple of times, then finally I had to spit on it  to dislodge it from my arm. I wonder how much that cost me? The bee did leave it’s stinger in me. “Pain in three, two, one – zoom!” Faster I went. I caught my minute-man on leg two and when I made the penultimate turn onto the third leg I knew I was riding the time trial of my life.  As the crosswind was pushing into me, I knew I had to keep pressure and continue turning the big gear. Then came the 3 to go marker. “Only 7 or 8 minutes to go, and you don’t yet feel like puking” I told myself, “you can go harder!” I shifted into a harder gear and kept pushing. Then came the final turn into the headwind. I tucked for the final mile and shifted into an even harder gear. I was hitting 27 to 28 mph going into the finish. “It can’t hurt much more than now,” I thought as I shifted down another gear and that’s where I apparently hit 30mph (I’m still going into a headwind here). The finish came at me fast and before I knew it I was over the line, rolling toward my car, completely out of breath, just short of puking – just as it should be.

At that point, I knew I left it all on the line and could not have asked any more of my legs on that effort. I’ve never gone so fast in a TT (25.4 mph), and while I know that there is still a lot of ways to improve that (and I intend to), for me it was progress and that’s what counted. I racked my bike, put away my wheels, got into compression tights, played with my roller some more and headed to the reg table to see if any results were posted. I spent so much time talking to people, eating and rolling my legs, that results were indeed ready.

I started scanning down from the top and didn’t have to scan for long. I was sitting in 4th place at the time trial with a time of 24:37:58. I was 20 seconds out of second place, but the guy in first absolutely destroyed the field with a time of 22:55, giving him one minute and 21 seconds over second place. Barring a crash or a mechanical, he had sealed the deal on the stage race. We’d all be competing for second. Next to the TT results were the crit results, I quickly glanced at the positions and times on the crit, ran some quick math in my head and figured that I was not only fourth in the time trial but also on GC.

The Road Race

The strategy coming into the race was to sit in near the front and save as much energy as possible. I was in fourth and margins were slim. I only had 11 and 12 seconds on fifth and sixth places, respectively, and there was no room for error. I knew there would be plenty of break attempts by guys just out of 6th place trying to jump into GC with a  20 second time bonus and a gap. The game plan – let others chase them down.

Before I go on with the play-by-play of the road race, I have to give a proper shout out to our referee. He was awesome! Not only did he point out all the pot-holes on the rough section of the course, but when there was a break, he would go between the break and the field and give us time splits so we knew what was happening. Made me feel kind of PRO. I was later told he’d been the referee at the Tour of California in the past.

After a short promenade to the intersection, the race was on. The Sierra Nevada guy who was blocking for his teammate last week at Merco was now on the nose pulling the field and had no teammates in the field. I was fifth or sixth wheel back and everyone was perfectly content with letting him pull. A couple of Davis and Rio Strada guys were also at the front doing work, while I was just trying to stay out of the wind. A few miles into it and the SN guy went into a solo break, and we let him go. There were over 60 miles of racing yet to be done, and we knew it was only a matter of time before we would catch him.

At around mile 11 of the 17-mile loop, the “cobbles” started. And by cobbles I mean some really crappy pavement that makes Midwestern spring pot-holes seem like a butter smooth road. To me, the worst part was the first 200-yard section that literally rattled me to the bone. The next four miles were rough, with holes, but nothing that was extremely difficult to avoid or ride over. I was keeping my fingers crossed for no flats.

I don’t believe the solo gap ever got over a minute twenty on the field and by the time we made it once around the course (one of four times) we were already bringing him back. Then, something unexpected happened, the GC leader came to the front and started to pull and he pulled pretty hard. The guy was huge, around 210 pounds, all muscle – exactly the type you want to race uphill and stay behind on the flats. Some other guys were itching for a bathroom break, so they asked him to call a natural once we caught the break. Once he agreed, there was no lack of volunteers willing to chase the break down and just after the second turn we pulled him in. As we made turn number three onto the rough section of the road, the peloton neutralized and stopped. If you’ve even wondered how cyclists do it on the road, this is how. All 40 something of us stopped and watered the local crops, then jumped back on the bikes and continued on with the race.

Lap two finished uneventfully, so did lap three and then it was on for the final lap. As soon as I saw a Mike’s Bikes rider go to the front of the field, I knew he was getting ready to launch his teammate who was sitting 12th on GC. Sure enough, the break went. But the peloton was not about to let him get away this late in the race and before leg one was over, we chased him down. No more serious break attempts materialized and when we hit the “cobbles” the GC leader came to the front, as he did the previous two times, and pulled the whole field for about 6 miles. I was fifth or sixth wheel as we approached the two rollers going into the finish. Then came the WTF moment. My legs simply had nothing more to give. I pushed as hard as I could, but a bunch of guys came around me on the first roller, I made up some distanced on the downhill, but not nearly enough to be in the top ten going to the line. My hardest push was good enough for 15th place. I was close to the leaders, but I didn’t know if I was close enough to have kept my GC spot or if I lost it due to time gaps. As I rolled by the leaders, I asked who finished where. Once I knew who the first three spots were, I realized that none of the time bonuses alone would get them over my GC time, so it was all about the gaps.

After waiting for results for what seemed like an eternity (and it nearly was), they were posted – no time gaps were assigned – and the first 16 places got the same time as the leader, which meant my GC position held. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to do better in the road race, but was happy that I performed well enough to keep my position on GC. For my efforts, I was rewarded with $5 and a t-shirt, oh, and a great feeling of accomplishment. It was time for a beer and a burger. 

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