Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Southern Racing

It’s been too long since I’ve updated, but you’ll get over it.  I’m just gonna say I was building the suspense.

After the grueling Gila Monster stage, we headed back to the host houses and packed up so we could knock out the first leg of the drive from Silver City to Albuquerque.  Mind you, I slept very well that night.

The next night found the Rio clan in Oklahoma City eating breakfast for dinner (well, most of us, anyways) at a little place that was peculiar in more ways than one:

The next morning, we finally arrived in Fayetteville, Arkansas (prounounced Are-Kansas).  The weather was great, so we unloaded the bikes and went to ride the loop for the second road race.  A few turned around early, opting for a ride of just over an hour, while the rest of us soldiered on to burn out the gunk in our car-legs.  As luck would have it, storms rolled in and the temperature dropped, and we busted it back to the van in at-times painful rain.

I chose the host home with a piano (turns out they both had one, but no matter), jumping on the opportunity to stretch my fingers during the downtime.  I would be playing piano at a friend’s wedding just a few weeks later, and needed to reacquaint myself with the ivories.

As with every other race on our calendar this year, I have never done it before and was relying on everyone’s accounts of how it usually plays out.  Two themes were recurring: 1) the final day, a crit, would be one of the hardest crits I’ve ever done and 2) my final position in GC would almost certainly be my position in the prologue hill climb time trial.  So I was quite happy to go preride the time trial course the day before racing was to start and figure out the best way to pace it.  I was a bit concerned, though, as the time trial was a tad too short to really suit my strengths right now, at only ~8 minutes long.

The next day, after an agonizing wait that morning and into the afternoon, I suffered through a painful warmup and made it to the startline sweaty (I had taken care of getting the weight of my bike checked much beforehand, thankfully, as it was nearly half a pound too light!).

Warming up was a hot and humid ordeal

There’s not too much to say about the time trial, as it’s a fairly straight 2.5 mile effort that climbs 600 feet.  It is so short that you must simply start out hurting and hurt more and more, then it’s over.  I went as fast as I possibly could, proven by the fact that I was trembling for 20 minutes afterward, but only managed a time of 8:37, good for 26th place.  I was not the only rider on Rio dissatisfied with my performance, but we still held our hopes for the days to come.  Mancebo won the time trial, and Bissell took 2nd-4th.  It seemed as if the battle between RealCyclist and Bissell had finally come to a head after Mancebo’s commanding victories at every stage race thus far.

Whereas every day at Gila was an early-morning start, Joe Martin’s races didn’t start until mid-afternoon, making the task of the day to stuff ourselves as much as possible at breakfast and lunch.  The 109 mile road race for stage one kicked off in the hot sun, and the field was aggressively attacking for the first third.  Finally a small break was established and the Realcyclist team settled in at the front to pull us around on what would become a very boring day.

With only 20 miles or so left to race, we hit a stair-stepping category 4 climb with break nearly in sight.  Even though the final 15 miles were downhill and flat into town—a textbook field sprint—we hit the climb hard.  And then something happened that has not happened all season: the RealCyclist Team cracked, leaving Mancebo all alone at the front.  Bissell leapt at the opportunity and began throwing attacks.  Seeking to avenge the previous day’s letdown, and seeing a real opportunity for a break to stick now, I found myself in a few moves and countermoves.  Mancebo fought hard to bring everything back, and we crested the top as a big group.  His teammates rallied once again at the front, and the field began preparing for the forecasted field sprint.

The finish featured two punchy rollers a kilometer out and then a false flat final 300 meters to the line.  I was only concerned about finishing without any time gaps to the front of the race like at Stage 2 of Gila, so I fought all the way to the line to close gaps that were opening.  Thankfully Trevor, Ian, and I finished with the leader’s time and maintained our GC positions.

That evening, I stuffed myself as much as I could handle, but knew that I was still a bit short on calories for the day….

The stage 2 road race was a 106-mile affair, and another hot one.  It was going to be  a long day, as my over-soft bed at the host house had wreaked havoc on my back, and it hurt to do much of anything.  This day, a break got away quickly, and RealCyclist immediately set a hard pace at the front. After the previous day, I seriously doubted that they could maintain the effort for too long.

At the beginning of the second lap, chaos broke loose on the punchy climb through the feedzone that we hit at what seemed a full sprint.  Riding at the front to protect Mancebo’s leads at several stage races had taken its toll, and they were well and truly broken.  They had it in reverse going up the hill, and Mancebo attacked to bridge to the break that was just ahead.  The field caught quickly, and now just 25 miles into the race Mancebo was alone without teammates.  Bissell tasted the blood in the water, and the next several miles were incredibly painful with attack after attack to break Mancebo.  I was following moves as well as I could, but my under-eating the previous night had shortchanged my recovery and I was truly fearful I wouldn’t finish in the field.

It was this aggressive racing (and RealCyclist paying an amateur team to help Mancebo pull back breaks) that eventually brought the race back together, save for a 3-man break just up the road.  Thanks to my teammates constantly fetching bottles from the team car for me and consistently eating, my legs finally came around at mile 90.  Bissell organized the leadout today, opting to maintain the GC standings for the crit the next day.  We finished in the field, but knew that the crit was going to be a real knock-down drag-out fight.

Not going to make the same mistake twice, I recovered properly that night.  After once again stuffing myself to bursting with normal food (and still being short on calories), I pulled out the key to open up my second stomach: Blue Bell ice cream.  I slept on the floor that night and my back nearly felt normal again, and the next morning I had my legs back as well!

The crit this year was a modified (read: safer) course from last year’s crash-fest, but that didn’t make it any easier.  After a twisty and narrow opening section, we blasted downhill for half a mile around two turns (and over a couple brick crosswalks that sent bottles skipping across the pavement every lap), then began a slight uphill drag to the final turn before a 150-meter steep pitch to the line.

The hill that concluded each lap

This 85-minute race (Round 3 of Mancebo VS Bissell) started fast and got faster.  I focused on staying near the front so as not to miss splits, saving as much energy as possible for the second half of the race.  Bissell’s riders were once again constantly attacking, and Mancebo’s teammates crumbled immediately, leaving him to do a lot of chasing on his own.  Splits happened a few times up the finishing kicker and through the twisty section at the top, and Ian and I were always there.

Ian and I had just bridged across a split near the front of the field

In really tough races, you have to know when to save your matches and when to use them. And sometimes, you have to recognize that it’s time to burn the whole book.  The pack had been slowly whittling down in the feverish pace and heat (I was pouring water on myself every few laps), and Mancebo had just burned a match pulling back a break on the drag to the last corner.  On the kicker to end the lap, Mancebo brought the field back together and another break was launched immediately across the top and he simply was done.

Ian and I were right next to each other and launched simultaneously in pursuit of the break that was quickly pulling away.  Holding nothing back, we made it to the break half a lap later knowing that we would never see the field again.  Our group worked fairly well together, rapidly putting time into the field.  I was in a world of hurt, constantly convincing myself that I could hang on for just 7 more laps, just 6 more laps, just 5 more laps….

Suffering more than we thought possible

With 2 laps remaining, cooperation ceased and Frank Pipp of Bissell launched a vicious move that would not come back.  Seeking GC time over a stage finish, Ian took a hard pull for me, then set me off in pursuit to see just how high I could jump on the GC.  I finished 7th on the stage, Ian 9th.  10 seconds after the finish I was plopped in a chair with ice down my jersey, a Coke in one hand and water in the other, in awe of the difficulty of the race and what I had just accomplished.

Fresh as a daisy

When the results came in, we learned that I had jumped to 6th on GC (top amateur!) and Ian to 11th (in a stage race where it was “impossible” to move up in GC….), and to top it off, we had moved up to 5th in the team competition, top amateur team!  Bissell had unseated Mancebo from the lead in dramatic fashion…he didn’t even bother to attend the awards presentation.

I wore that smile for the rest of the day.