Mar 7, 2011

Merco race report - my first (not) stage race

There is no other way I can begin to write this blog than to applaud the organizers of Merco Cycling Classic. It was an amazing atmosphere to be a part of for the weekend, not to mention how great the event was managed. The Pro/1/2s had a four day stage race, starting on Thursday with a road race. For the rest of us, the next three days consisted of three separate events, while those same events counted toward the P/1/2's stage race GC. Friday was the individual time trial, Saturday was the downtown criterium and Sunday was the road race.


The TT began at 1pm for the pro women and went down the line with pro men, then masters, then the combined 3-4-5 field. My starting time wasn't until 3:17pm. I left the house around 9am and got to the staging area around 11:30. The skies were blue, the wind wasn't too bad, and the temperatures were picking up. It looked like a perfect day for a race.

As I walked down the road toward registration, the feel of the place gave me goosebumps. On one side of the road you have the guys from Bissell, on the other the pro women from HTC-High Road, talking about how they just returned from racing Tour of Oman. You truly had the feel of being among the top level athletes of the sport.

I began to set everything up, the trainer the wheels, my helmet, skin suit, etc. I don't really like to be rushed before a race - that's just extra anxiety that I simply don't need. My teammate, Michael, was about 30 minutes behind me on the road, so I waited for him to pre-ride the course. I put on my Zipps, with the rear having spoke covers. I wanted to test them out on the pre-ride to see if there was any cross wind that would warrant taking them off - there wasn't.

Around 12:30 we set off for our preride. Which I must say, was not an easy pre-ride - I think next weekend at Madera I'm going to do my pre-ride solo. I'm not sure which one of us was pushing the other, but for the first 2-3 miles, my legs were buzzing, despite my heart rate being at a relatively calm 140 to 150 bpm. Then they loosened up a bit and the rest of the way felt good.

We would be heading out into a head wind and up hill, which is great for a time trial because it means that coming back was a downhill with a tailwind, and I have a 55x11 on my TT bike. I marked the crest of the hill at about 3.7 miles and decided that would be the distance I would go conservatively. Coming down the backside of the hill, it was still a headwind, but the downward slope allowed speeds of 30+ mph. From the turn around, it was a 2.3 mile climb and then a bombing 3.7 mile descent into the finish. However, these were not major climbs or descents - nothing that warranted getting out of the aero position. On the way out, we would have to climb about 200 feet over almost 4 miles and on the way back, the climb was about 130 feet over 2 miles.

We finished the pre-ride just as the course was closing and the first P/1/2 women were ready to do their thing. I swung by registration, picked up my number and headed back to the car. One of the hardest things in late start races is keeping my glycogen up throughout the day. So I had a couple bananas with some Greek yogurt and a Forze bar and waited around until the right time for me to get on the trainer came along. I did a nice 40 minute warmup with 1 to 4 minute intervals at or above threshold, just to make sure all my systems were awake and functioning. Now it was race time. Oh, I should also probably mention that Friday was the first time I got on my TT bike this year, so this was as much of a race as an experiment for what I need to do better.

The rider ahead of me was a ghost (no show) and I had to wait a full minute in the gate. With 30 seconds remaining, I clipped one foot in, with 10 remaining the other. I looked down at my Garmin, and without even moving, my hear rate was at 134bpm - that's what I call nerves. Five, four, three, two, one - I was off.

What I noticed immediately is that the headwind picked up and that 3.7 mile climb up those 200 feet was not as easy as it was in the pre-ride. I found my rhythm, and my cadence, and was clipping away yard, after yard. I caught the rider who started a minute before me at about mile 3, and kept clipping away to the crest. Once the hill pitched up a bit, I slowed to a very frustrating 18 mph, but once I crested, I was able to make up the speed on the downhill approaching the turnaround. As I approached the turnaround, I felt like I was going slow and was going to be caught, but as I went around the cone and began my return, I saw my minute rider after some time and then no-one else. I likewise didn't see anyone ahead of me.

The headwind that made my slog up the 3.7 miles tough, would now be of assistance in my 2.3 mile climb out. I was climbing at 20+mph, never leaving he aero position. And then came the crest and I was in for a fast ride to the finish. From the crest to the line I was in gears between 55x11 and 55x13, hitting speeds of 33 to 36 mph. With about 1 k to go, I saw a Davis Bike Club masters rider up ahead and he was just the carrot I needed for the final push to the finish. My goal for the TT was to finish under 30 minutes and I came in at 29.45, so I was content.

Now it was the wait for the results. They were up very fast and I saw myself in the middle of the page in 16th place. I was happy with my time, but a bit disappointed not to see myself a bit higher in the standings. However, later at the hotel, as I was browsing the net, I noticed that the results were already uploaded to the USACycling website (that lighting speed around here) and as it turned out, most of the riders ahead of me were 3s and I was in 3rd place out of 11 4s that did the TT. Seeing that definitely lifted my spirits a bit. Next up on the menu was the crit. Now, it was time to go check into our hotel and relax for a bit. The most challenging part, however, was finding our room.

Guess what room number was ours?

Downtown Merced Criterium

When I registered for this event, it was going to be my first ever crit and it was a nice little crit. Pretty much four corners with one S-turn that didn't look too horrible. However, a few weeks before the race, the course was changed due to construction in Merced. The course would now go in the opposite direction and contain a hairpin turn. This didn't necessarily make me ecstatic, but I'm not really opposed to diving into the deep end of the pool when it comes to cycling. This being my first crit, I was looking to do three things: first and foremost, stay upright; secondly, not get dropped; third, learn from the experience and get the feel for the race.

I staged in the middle of the pack. Three, two, one, the whistle blew and we were off. Other than going very fast into corners and keeping an eye on everyone around and in front of me, I really had absolutely no clue what the hell was going on. I felt a bit trapped as the field moved as one giant school of fish - "how the hell do I get to the front of this thing?" - I thought to myself. "Oh, this is kind of like cyclocross - you have to stage better and sprint out of the gate for position." Okay, well there is something I learned. For the first five laps, the field moved very, very fast and then we settled into a rythm. Go fast through the turns from the start, slow down and bunch up near the hairpin, sprint out of the hairpin and slow by the start/finish line. Lather, rinse, repeat. Another thing I learned is to shift, shift, shift. I think I was in the proper gear all of three times coming out of the hairpin and doing 20+ sprints in one crit does start to catch up with you.

I'm used to going hard for much longer than 50 minutes, so I had plenty of gas in the crit, it's the experience of maneuvering through the field that was lacking. By about 15th lap, I settled into a rhythm and was just planning to make the best of it into the finish. I realized there was no way I was going to get dropped from this field, so it was all about paying attention and learning. I ended up 33rd out of 50+ racers, in the pack and only 8 seconds off the leader's time. I stayed upright and learned a thing or two about racing crits. Now I just have to learn the other 98 things that probably go with it. Mission of the day was accomplished and it was now time to watch the rest of the groups do their thing.

It is quite amazing to finish a race and then watch the Pros race on the same course. A couple of beers, a chicken sandwich and many hours of spectating later, it was time to head back to the hotel, chill out, grab dinner and get mentally ready for the road race on Sunday.

Ben Jaques-Maynes being awarded the overall leader's jersey.

Almond Blossom Road Race

As far as the weather was concerned, Sunday was a different animal. The day began as rainy and gray. Before coming down for breakfast in the morning, I checked the radar and it looked like the rain might clear out by the time my race was due to start. The rain didn’t really bother me that much because despite the fact that it was raining, it was near 60 degrees, so I knew I wouldn't be freezing.

I was at registration at 10am, two hours before my race. I got out of the car, went to get my number and went back in the car. There was no sense in sticking around outside getting wet in the rain. I pinned my number for the first time this year (I decided gluing something to my jersey in the rain wasn’t the best of ideas) and was just waiting it out before it was time to set up for the warm up.

As the minutes were ticking away, I realized that I should probably set some stuff up so I’m not rushing around like crazy later on. I set up my trainer, my bike and pumped up my trainer wheel and the front wheel. Just then, I looked inside my trunk and realized my racing wheel wasn’t in there. “Crap!” I thought to myself – “did I forget my racing wheel in the hotel?!?” Then I looked up at my roof rack and realized my race wheel was still on my crit bike from Saturday’s race. After that little mild heart attack, I proceeded to set things up, keeping in mind that I’d have another task of swapping rear wheels before race start.

By the time it was time for me to get no the trainer, the rain had practically stopped and all I had on was a base layer, my jersey, arm warmers and embro on my legs. I did wear my neoprene booties, but only to keep my feet dry from the backspray. This being my third day on the bike, I was surprised at how good my legs felt during warmup. However, I knew what I could do in that race and what I couldn’t. I knew that there was no way I’d be strong enough to survive in the break because one, this was going to be a third hard day in a row, two, only a handful of guys in the peloton raced the TT, and three, not all raced the crit the day before either. I also knew that there were only two ways this race would go down. Either a breakaway would ride into the finish, or it would be a giant, mass sprint for the line, in which case it was all about position, position, position.

I finished warming up with 15 minutes to start. I then quickly took the Kane off the rack, removed the rear wheel, threw it on the Orbea, put the other wheel back on the Kane and re-racked it. In the process, I managed to cut my finger and blood was starting to flow. With not time for fancy first aid, I just wrapped it with some sports tape and figured I’d take care of it after the race. It wasn’t anything serious, I just didn’t want to cover my bike in blood. On the way to the start, I made a bio stop and as I got out of the port-o-potty, I realized I forgot to pump my rear wheel (the one that came off the Kane). Luckily, there were cyclists right across the road and I borrowed their pump. After all that anxiety, I made it to the line with five minutes to spare – phew! I originally staged in about the fourth row, but there were some masters racers ahead of me, who were supposed to start after out group, so I asked them to move out of the way and all of a sudden I was in the front row.

Before the last guy could clip in after the whistle, we already had a guy out in front. No one was really taking it seriously and we kind of clipped along for the first few hundred yards. Then another guy bridged and the peloton decided it was time to chase them down. Unlike the crit, in the road race I feel right at home, so the first thing I did was take inventory of who was in attendance. Tri-Valley Velo, Rio Strada, Sierra Nevada, Berkley Bicycle Club and SBR all had at least three riders in the mix and I knew that in each of those teams there was at least one guy capable of getting a podium spot. For the first 17 miles of the first loop I was either on the front or near the front. Then, my legs told me I better stop being so enthusiastic, so I relegated myself into the middle of the pack to hide from the winds and recover a bit. This being my fourth mass start race of the year, I'm getting very comfortable being in the pack and can move around within it fairly easily, so I knew that any time I wanted I could get to the front without eating too much wind.

By the time we came through the finish line the first time, I was feeling a bit exhausted and I knew we had some rollers to go over, so I chucked one of my bottles that was a third full, knowing that a full second one was more than enough for the last lap.

I continued to sit in and watched the race develop – it wasn’t slow. Then, a Sierra Nevada guy went into a break taking another rider with him. The other two SN guys were blocking in front and doing a very good job of it. I was frankly surprised that none of the teams with numbers came to the front and got organized a chase. The break never went far, but at about 500m out, it was a bit too much for comfort with a disorganized peloton. I was still sitting in waiting to see what would happen. As guys tried to form into a rotating paceline in the windy section of the peloton, one of the SN guys was doing an exceptional job of screwing that effort up, forcing guys to come out into the wind to get around him. I took one pull in the paceline before the whole thing fell apart.

Despite the poor organization, we go within about 200 meters of the break that was clearly in the process of breaking down. I yelled out to let them dangle there for a while and we could just bring them in a bit later on. So the peloton let the gap grow to about 500 meters again an again the SN guys were doing a very good job of blocking. A Third Pillar rider and another with him were trying to catch the break and were sitting one two with an SN guy in the third position. “This is going to go nowhere” – I thought, so I came next to the SN guy and moved him out of the way. Now I was sitting third wheel (guess who was fourth?) and soon the Third Pillar guy would pull off, then the other guy pealed and I was on the front pulling 23-24mph into a headwind. Why? I have no idea. I waved for someone to pull through and guess what? Nada. The SN guy was planted on my wheel and no one was willing to swing around into the wind to do some catching.

So I figured I might as well make this ride into a workout. I picked it up a notch and was the first one going into a right hand turn with about 18 miles to go in the race. The break was about 400m away. I turned it up another notch taking it up to about 25mph (I’m still on the nose here) and closed it to about 200m before pulling off to the right. Luckily the guys got the point that this is as close as I can physically get them to the break and within the next km, we caught them with a group effort. Then something weird and unexpected happened.

I thought that as soon as we catch the break, the SN guy who rode my wheel the whole time would attack, but instead, the pace went dead and we rolled easy for the last miles of the race. I don’t like seeing 60 guys going into the finish line together. Everyone thinks they are Mark Cavendish and that just leads to no good. With 2km to go, I was second wheel out and decided to go solo off the front. Why? I have absolutely no clue. I went about 200 meters before my legs told me I was out of my mind. So I eased up and to my astonishment, no one was trying to blaze by me. As a rider went by, I got on his wheel.

At this time, I’m second wheel out, I’m all the way on the right side of the road with no one on my left. All of a sudden, three things happen within a split second: I hear someone yell, “attack” (why someone would yell that as if we were on a battlefield, I have no idea, but that’s a Cat. 4 race for ya); I think to myself this will lead to no good; and I hear carbon and flesh hit the ground behind me. All of a sudden, going solo of the front went from being a stupid idea to a skin-saving one (quite literally). Some guys went past me, but by that point, I had no kick to chase. With 200 meters to go, I shifted as far down as I could and pushed with all I had, passing a few guys and moving up a few places in the results. I ended up with 13th place out of more than 55 riders and only 16 seconds off the leader. Considering the great workout I got in that race, I was very pleased with the result. Luckily, the crash behind me resulted in only minor bruises and scrapes. 

Overall, this was a great tune up for the Madera Stage Race next weekend. I now know it will all come down to the TT. 

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