Saturday, January 5, 2008

Moving up a step... Snelling RR (20070225)

Saturday was the Snelling Road Race, a mostly flat road race in the farm
country of the Central Valley in Northern California.

The wife of one of my teammates calls it "Smelling" since there are a
lot of cows around, and that isn't too far from the truth but there are
also a lot of cherry orchards there, and they were in full bloom with
the spring, so I thought it was pretty country.

The race was around 65 miles, the roads weren't great, but there wasn't
supposed to be much wind, so I opted for some aerodynamic wheels I have
(tri-spokes, if you're curious) that are hard to control in a
cross-wind, but really fast.

The cast of Team Oakland crew in the race were:

* Jesse Freese (looking to finish strong in his first road race)
* Jim Rusk (looking to come back after his Pine Flat cramps)
* Jason James (looking for some glory, or a top-10)
* Me (looking for victory still, or maybe some points, or helping
anyone else with a strong desire)
* Ed Lai (who unfortunately got sick and stayed home - next time, man!)

Pre-race strategy involved talking with the Third Pillar team, since
they had a lot of very strong guys and warned us they were going to set
the pace high from the gun, and the Squadra Ovest team mainly just to
tell them that we were nice guys and the one hot-head they have on their
team should relax a little bit and enjoy the racing, n'est ce pas?

With five laps, we decided on a strategy of having a couple guys hang
near the front to keep on eye on things and go with breaks for the first
two laps, then have a different couple guys work the second two laps,
and basically attack the race trying for a breakaway. The final run-in
had about two miles of really crappy pavement, a 90-degree right hand
turn, then a 300m hill/flat-spot/hill sprint. None of us wanted to
sprint through all that crap, which is why we focused on breakaways.

Owing to the warning about the high pace, we all warmed up before the
start (not always necessary for a road-race, especially a flat one) and
lined up near the front. The field was completely full, with 100
category 4 racers, and when the gun went off, our huge pack rolled off
into the sunrise to see how things played out.

In contrast with the forecast, there actually was a wind, and the first
long flat section was a perfect cross-wind. When you're racing bicycles,
you need to be drafting as much as you can, but with a cross-wind the
draft is at an angle - it moves to the downwind side of the rider in
front of you. Since the road doesn't care where the wind is, what that
means is that you usually end up right up against the side of the road,
trying as hard as you can to get any draft from the rider in front of
you but not getting much, and not giving much to the guy behind you.

Third Pillar was true to their word, and they really hit the gas on this
stretch, which led to the beautiful to see (but painful to be in) sight
of 100 guys, in single file, ripping along a country road in perfect
single file. By the end of the stretch some riders had started to pop,
opening gaps that you had to jump around and close, and we were only 5
miles into the race. I could tell this was going to be a long day.

On the second lap, Jason James had opted for early-race breakaway
detail, and he went with two of the Third Pillar guys, and a couple
other folks. According to his story, they were riding so hard that he
could barely hold on to their wheel, but the pack wasn't letting them go
anyway. The pack kept the speed high, caught that break, and when Jason
slid back past me, he said he felt wrecked but that they were still strong.

Knowing the crosswind section was coming, that Third Pillar was
motivated, and that today was a day for breakaways, I pushed it towards
the front and got ready to try my own hand. Sure enough, on the third
lap, we hit the crosswind, and the pack hit the gas again. Gaps started
to open, and about a half mile into this two mile stretch I realized
that with the crosswind being what it was, it wasn't going to hurt any
more to simply go to the front myself, so I pulled out of line, went
past the final 5-10 people in front of me and really drilled it. That
tore up the front group, and when I pulled off the front we were down to
six guys off the front, with the pack strung out behind us, chasing like

Out of this group of six, the same two Third Pillar guys were there, and
one of them hit the front of the group so hard that the rider two people
in front of me had a little anaerobic disaster and blew off the wheel,
taking all three of us off the group. I jumped around it as fast as I
could, but now I'm chasing solo up to the front three.

We had a motorcycle escort, and as he came up to the group he saw me,
smiled, pointed to the three leaders, and waved me forward to spur me
on. That easy gesture from someone who only had to twist his wrist to go
faster frustrated me just enough to step on it and touch up with the
front guys.

So it was done - the race was torn up, I was in a breakaway group of
four, off the front of a 100-strong pack of racers, with the most
motivated team in the race (Third Pillar), a Webcor guy (Dave - nice
guy), and myself. We represented three large teams in the field, so as
long as we held up our end of the bargain by keeping the hammer down, we
could count on our teammates back in the field to hold up their end of
the bargain by disrupting chase efforts and giving us a good chance to
stay away.

There was only one problem with this setup. One of the Third Pillar guys
(his name was also Mike, coincidentally) was new to bike racing but
apparently is a very strong triathlete. So strong in fact, that he had
blown my teammate Jason James off his wheel already in the race, and now
I'm suffering like a dog to stay on his wheel. I pulled through a few
times, but I want to be clear that this dude powered the breakaway in a
big-time way. I was cross-eyed, seeing spots, having problems with
motivation and just generally having a hell of a time riding with this
group. It was clear that he was stronger than everyone but at least he
was nice about it - encouraging us to stay on his wheel and keep it
together, and even dropping back to fetch one or the other of us back up
to the little group when we split up.

We kept on like this for a full lap, amassing what must have been a 5-7
minute gap or so on the field so quickly it was amazing, but the Webcor
rider had already fallen off the group, and finally I couldn't take
anymore. I pulled through, felt my legs empty completely, and cracked. I
thanked the two Third Pillar guys for their work, wished them well and
fell off the pace. There were just under two laps to go, I was by myself
with a huge pack in the distance behind me and I just felt done. I have
to admit that at this point, I had no confidence in my own ability - I
had tried so hard to stay on, and failed, and despite being in third
place on the road I felt so beat down I wanted to pull over and stop.

Knowing how hard I had trained this winter, and that my teammates were
probably in the wind behind me kept me from giving up completely though,
and I quickly took down some calories and a bunch of water while ticking
over a relaxed tempo on the pedals.

The pack in the distance grew larger, I finished my personal refueling
and prepared to reintegrate with my field. To my surprise, that was a
Master's 35+ Cat. 1/2/3 pack though, not my Cat. 4 field. Apparently
that pack had passed mine, and now that they were gone, I was looking at
maybe 5 minutes of road behind me, and I still couldn't see my pack.
That meant that I still had a huge gap. Next thing you know, Dave, my
fellow break-mate from Webcor rolled up to me and said hey, we couldn't
hold on to those guys, but I still think we have something here, do you
want to go for it? I figured I wasn't going to sprint anymore today (my
legs were already too cooked for that) so why not.

And so it went.

Just under two laps to go, two guys out in the wind, with 96 people
behind us. Can we make it?

I don't remember anything specific about that 20 miles except that I
very carefully stayed right below my absolute limit the entire time,
with my heart doing nearly 180 beats per minute for nearly an hour. I
was so close to blowing up completely and cramping, but I kept it
together, and finally we hit the last stretch of road, with only 300
meters to go, and no pack in sight. We had made it.

We had agreed not to play games with each other since it was a hill
finish and that would be enough to sort us out. We held to that, and
when we got to the hill, we both stood up to sprint, but Dave
unfortunately cramped up, and I went just ahead of him to take 3rd place.

Woohoo! My first breakaway every, and my highest result in more than 10
years. And I get another t-shirt

Back in the pack, Jim Rusk had made it into a chase group, Jason James
had bridged up to it and gone through it, and both rolled through with
high placings. Jesse finished his first road race looking strong, and
I'm sure he'll figure bigger in the next one.

As for me, I'm taking it easy tomorrow to rest the legs, skipping next
weekend's races, and will be back for the Zamora Road Race the weekend
after. In the meantime, the next step is to figure out how to stay in
the breakaway, where "figure out" most likely means "training harder"
since I really just need more power.

Happy Trails...

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