Mar 20, 2012

San Dimas Stage Race

I've raced in many parts of NorCal, but this was my first time racing in SoCal. I've heard many good things about this race, from racers I know who did it last year and teammates who've done it in the past. I knew the race was completely not suited to my abilities, but I really wanted to experience it and see how I'd do. There were two other teammates in the race with me, Francisco and Mike, both much better climbers than I am, so I figured that if I can be there and help them somehow, that would be my role for the entire stage race.

Stage 1: Hill Climb

There were 125 riders registered in my field, and 110 showed up for this first stage. I'm not really a climber. I can be a middle of the pack climber, but I felt absolutely no pressure going to the start line. The goal was to pace myself and leave it all on the course and see how I stack up.

The course was a 3.8 mile climb up Glendora Mountain Road. It starts out flat, but quickly pitches to about 4-5 percent and stays there for most of the climb, pitching a bit more in the switchbacks. This year, the start of the TT was moved up the road by about a fifth of a mile and the finish was also moved up one fifth of a mile to keep the distance the same. However, that changed the course quite a bit, as the flat one-fifth at the start was now replaced with a climby one-fifth at the finish, so historic times up the climb didn't really apply and this year's times were a bit slower across the board.

I was pleased with how I paced myself. I didn't go out too hard, paced myself during the climb, hit my target HR about two-fifths up the climb and kept it steady. I caught my 30 second man around minute seven and kept churning away toward the finish. My official time was 18:32, which on that day was good for 61st out of 110 -- told you I wasn't a climber. Francisco, on the other hand, killed the TT and ended up in top 10 going to the road race the next day. Good day for Squadra SF.

Stage 2: The Road Race

We pre-rode the course the day before, so we would know what to expect, but nothing could have prepared us for what was to come on Saturday -- that is not to say we didn't know it was coming. The course is a seven-mile loop that we'd be doing six times for a total of 42 miles. It starts out flat, then there's a power hill that was also the designated feed zone, followed by some more flat roads and the .6-mile KOM climb with a 13 percent kicker at the top. Then comes a really steep twisty descent, that drops you off onto a flat road and a flat mile and a quarter to the finish line.

The forecast for Saturday was rain, rain, more rain and some strong, strong winds. We got dressed at the hotel to limit the time outside at staging. I decided to go with embro on my legs because I didn't feel like dragging an extra few pounds that would have been the wet knee/leg warmers. That was a good decision. The bad decision I made was not getting a proper warmup because there's nothing I hate more than sitting on a trainer while getting rained on. So I rolled around for 10 minutes and went to staging. Where we sat for another 10 minutes before the course was clear for us to start. The whistle blew and off we went. The first lap was going just fine until we hit the KOM climb. I was actually holding my own on the climb, it's just not long enough for me to get popped, tho I probably was working a bit harder than some folks in the field.

Then came the decisive moment, the downhill. To put it frankly, I simply didn't have the balls to bomb it, it was probably at least -10 percent, the roads were a mess, looked like ice, and the last thing I wanted to happen was go sliding into a ditch on my side -- I already did that not so long ago. So those with a bit more testicular fortitude gapped the rest of us on the descent, which dropped the field into the finishing stretch that was being hit by a 20-30 mph crosswind. The field was immediately guttered by the leaders and shattered to pieces. I tried to chase back on with other groups of riders, but all I could do was watch the main bunch roll away in the wind. At some point during lap two, I got into a group of about a dozen riders and we did our best to work together to either close the gap or at least not miss the cutoff time, which was 10 percent over the winner's time.

For a second there, I really wanted to roll it in after lap two and call it a day, but then I remembered how I felt after I did that at Madera, and decided I was going to finish this race no matter what. Plus, I really wanted to race the crit the next day, and I knew if I abandoned now, that wouldn't happen and I wouldn't be able to do anything for my teammates in the crit if they needed me. I had to stay in it.

By the end of lap three, our group was whittled down to six riders. On that lap and on lap four, I noticed that I was dropping everyone in the group on the main climb and my legs started to feel great (should have really warmed up, I'm not 20 anymore). I was very happy to make the crest first because I had the best look at the crazy descent, but on laps three and four, I let myself get caught because there is a lot of flat ground to cover in the wind, and we were working much better as a group, even managing to form a proper echelon at one point.

On lap four, one of the riders in the group said, "we're probably going to miss the cutoff," and I immediately knew that there would be no more waiting on my part if another split happened. Waiting for people who are not motivated is not a good plan. On lap five, I and another rider dropped our four compatriots on the KOM climb, hesitated for just a bit in the flat section, and then I turned to him and said, "we have to go, if they want it, they'll catch us." From that point on, it was just the two of us to the finish, taking hard pulls, getting to that finish line as fast as we could to avoid getting cut. One last time down the crazy descent and I gave it all I got going into the finish, pulling at about 32mph into a headwind. If I was going to be cut by minutes, so be it, but I didn't want to get cut by seconds and know that I could have pushed just a little harder at the end.

With about two hundred meters to go, the other rider came to the front and began to pull us to the finish. Then as he was about to get out of the saddle and sprint for it (what "it" was isn't really clear to me), I said, "don't worry, you can have 'it'." He relaxed, but kept looking over his shoulder as if I was playing a trick on him. "I don't play those games," I said and we crossed the line together, with his wheel just a bit in front of mine. As long as we got the same time, I didn't really care which one of us would cross first.

I finished not knowing if I made the cut. I was wet, cold, miserable, but happy that I did not abandon and that my legs came around and performed, even when I no longer was in any contention for any placement.

A couple hours later, as we were eating lunch, results were emailed to us and I saw that the rider I finished with an I were the last two guys to make the cut (by about a minute), the four riders we dropped missed the cut by 11 seconds. Out of 103 riders who started, only 70 finished, and 60 made the cutoff. * The conditions were truly extreme and in parts dangerous. My teammates and I all made the cut, all stayed upright and were all going to be racing in the crit the next day. Given the circumstances, we called it a good day, and went back to our hotel to keep warm and hope for dry conditions for the crit.

The extreme conditions of the day merit a short paragraph of their own. The roads were completely wet and slippery. Whatever small groves were at the intersections or sides of roads turned into streams of running water that in places were  rim deep (I was racing Zipp 404s). Crashes were happening left and right in every field. On one of the laps, making the twisty corner at the base of the KOM we saw a guy in the fetal position in a ditch next to his bike and volunteers running toward him to help. Every time I went down the descent from the KOM I had zero confidence in the fact that I would keep it upright or in my ability to correct my line if an emergency happened ahead of me -- it was as good as descending on ice. 

*Due to extreme conditions on course, the cut for E4 was extended to 12 percent. So the four guys I mentioned above actually made the cut under the new extended time, but they only found out about it at midnight when that email arrived.

Stage 3: the crit

This will be very brief. It was just really not my lucky day. The course was a six corner L-shape. There was a shallow riser that started after corner two and continued to corner four, where it flattened, then there was the downhill after turning corner five into the final corner and finishing straight.

On lap two or three as we hit corner two, I heard a weird noise. I'm in a pack, so I don't know if it's me, or the guy next to me or in front of me. All I know is that at that particular moment, I don't feel anything, so I keep rolling. Then we turn corner three and all of a sudden the group is pulling away from me going uphill. My legs are lactic like crazy, I'm doing all I can, but I can't keep up. I figured that I just worked too hard the day before, but I didn't understand how everyone else still had way more power than I, even guys I was dropping the day before. 

After I realized that I just got dropped in a crit for the first time in my racing "career," the strategy was to move fast enough to get placed and not get pulled before the half way mark of the crit. I made it to the point where the field was coming up behind me and seeing three to go. The ref made the hand gesture, I sunk my head and pulled over. I went to the corner and watched the field roll by. Then as I got ready to move back to the car, I felt some resistance and immediately knew what the noise I heard earlier was. I began feeling my rear spokes until I found the guilty spoke dangling loosely in my wheel. The snapped spoke resulted in the wheel rubbing on both the chainstay and the brake pad. I guess that's where all the watts I was trying to use to keep up with the field went. Oh well, not my day. On the bright side, I thought to myself, I'm not weaker than everyone else in the field, I was just too dumb to realize I had a mechanical. Had I figured that out, I would have been able to grab a neutral wheel and continue the race. Another "rookie" error.

The overall

I really liked this race and I'm definitely eager to come back next year and give it another go with better fitness and hopefully better luck and weather. This is definitely the one to target, not just train through. I doubt that the course will all of a sudden suit me next year, but hey, things like that don't stop me from doing races like Everest Challenge for what might be the third year in a row (I'm about 60 percent ready to do it again this year) and certainly won't stop me from returning to San Dimas, if for no other reason than to be a better helper to my climber teammates. The organizers do a phenomenal job and create a great racing atmosphere. Receiving results via email shortly after the race is also a great touch. I wish more races in NCNCA would use that technology. I would have to say that despite all the adversity and some bad luck, the experience was positive, as I learned quite a bit and gained some fitness and mental toughness.

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