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.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Tour of the Gila Part Deux

Stage 3: 16.5 mile time trial

To say I was looking forward to the time trial at Gila would be an understatement.  I'd been training for those 16.5 miles of suffering for the past month, and couldn't wait to get going.  With the expected time in the mid-to-high 30's, I didn't bother with too much intensity in the warmup.  I did a few hard efforts, but was focused mostly on just loosening everything up from the previous two days of racing.

I had had my bike setup checked well beforehand and the officials didn't give me any grief over my R2C shifters, thankfully.  That may have been because they were angled downward, but who knows--I certainly didn't broach the subject! Warmup finally completed, I donned all the slippery gear I could find and paid one last visit to Mr. John Porta before heading for the starting chute.

Wheel choice was a tricky issue that day: the winds were quickly picking up.  At the time of my start, the winds were ~25mph with gusts in the mid-40's.  I opted for the rear disc and a front 808, knowing that the lighter climbers ahead of me on GC would likely not be able to control that sail, giving me a slight advantage.  While waiting for my start to arrive, I heard the announcers say that Tom Zirbel currently had the fastest time of the day, with 35 and a half minutes.  Always favoring an ambitious goal over mediocrity, I chose Zirbel's as my target time.

At long last, I was on the opening 4.5 mile climb that stair-steps up around 4% gradient.  Wanting to nearly explode at the top, I paced myself carefully.  Every few minutes, I'd ratchet the pace up just a little bit.  I caught Frank Pipp of Bissell, my 30-second man, around the 5-minute mark and my 1:00 and 1:30 men at the same time a few minutes later.  With my heart bursting at the top of the climb, I convinced myself to suffer in agony just another 100 yards to get up to speed on the descent.  I'd finally earned a chance to coast for a bit as my speed quickly climbed to the 50mph mark.  I just stayed low and spun the 55x11 up once in a while to maintain momentum.

There was a half-mile at the bottom of the descent, though, where I was legitimately scared.  The winds were swirling in the little canyon and slamming me from side to side with gusts upwards of 40mph, and I was struggling to maintain control.  When in doubt, more power!  I made it through unscathed and tried to maintain a fast pace to the turnaround without hurting too much.

20 minutes in, I made an unceremonious u-turn around the cone in the road and headed back from whence I came, trying to save enough energy to fly up the final climb.  It finally arrived, and just 5 minutes of climbing at 8% grade later (yes, I stayed in the bars the whole time), I crested the top in a fury that made my legs think they were done.  Now all that was left was 4.5 miles of downhill tailwind, and a scant 5 minutes and change in which to do it (to match Zirbel's time).  The descent for me, with legs that could scarcely function, consisted of furious spinning for 20 seconds to get my speed back up to 50mph, then coasting for 20 seconds.  Rinse and repeat. I crossed the 1K to go mark at 35 minutes and knew it was time to use everything I had left, blasting across the line in a cotton-mouthed heavy-legged tired-armed blur of red, black, white, and neon green (dadgum non-matching cannondale!).

It hurt. A lot.
My face was frozen this way for some time afterwards....

My efforts were not in vain, as I ended up 7th on the day with 35:38 (Zirbel was 6th), only 59 seconds off the winner's pace! One of the best results on my race resume, for sure. And, I had jumped to 19th in GC!

Stage 4: 42mi criterium

We raced the crit.  We finished the crit without time gaps.

Nothing interesting happened, with the exception of the last-lap debacle.  Seems simple enough to me: 3 laps to go, 2 laps to go, 1 lap to go. Right?! Nope.

3 laps to go. 1 lap to go. (Backside of course) 2 laps to go! 1 lap to go.  Good thing nobody had taken off on their last-lap effort only to light the match too early.  Oh wait, the race leader Mancebo did. Oops.

Stage 5: 105mi Gila Monster

The Gila Monster. The most revered of all the stages. Check the course profile here.

I had been told the stage would stay fairly restrained for the first 50 miles over the category 3 climb and through the hilly Mimbres valley, then explode on the first category 2 climb.  Everyone was wrong.  The winds provided a good opportunity to wear people out, and RealCyclist was under attack. They kept the pace high to protect Mancebo's lead, never giving prospective breakaways more than 30 seconds.  We covered nearly 30 miles in the first hour, and the size of the field reflected that.

I had managed to stay near the front the whole time and so was still feeling fresh as we headed for the real climbing.  I thought the pace up the cat-2 climb was fast but not too painful, but the size of the field began to dwindle.  It swelled again to about 50 riders after the long and fast descent.  We made it to the turnaround and everyone braced themselves for the return leg.

Crossing the river again, headed for the category-1 climb. This is all that remained of the 150-rider field.

Going the other direction, we faced a cat-1 climb that ascends 1800 feet to an elevation 7500' in only a handful of miles.  The attacks began immediately and our group was down to 20 just as quickly.  I followed the attacks, knowing that there would be a chance to recover between them.  This lasted halfway up the climb, and I was finally unhitched from the lead group of 10.  I focused on keeping them just 30 seconds ahead.  As they began to pull away, the race caravan began working its way past me.

Stay in the caravan, I repeated to myself as the climb dragged on.  I cold-shouldered my teammates in the feedzone, focused intently on getting to the top with the leaders within closing distance and not wanting any additional weight at the moment.  My suffering paid off, as I crested the climb in a small group just as the tail end of the caravan was passing us.

The descent was amazing.  I called all my cornering skills into play as I and the other riders in my group wove our way through the caravan in a cacophony of honking (each driver announcing to the driver ahead of them that riders were coming up) at exceptional speeds.  We had the whole road and used every inch of it, using brake-lights of cars and the photo-motorcycles as indications of whether we needed to slow down for a corner.  I've never pushed so hard on a descent before and was terrified, but was also very comfortable at the same time just laying the bike over and sweeping from apex to apex.

Our group joined up with the leaders just before the start of the next cat-2 climb.  This time, I quickly opted to climb at my own pace as I was beginning to hurt.  I kept a group of riders just a bit ahead, receiving encouragement from Scott and Dr. Pruitt in the team car next to me.  I was able to catch that group across the top of the climb, then we all worked together over the final climb and sprinted it out at the end, each of us using the last of our energy.  I finished 19th on the stage, a few minutes down from Mancebo's solo victory, moving me up to my final GC place of 18th.  Ian and Trevor had finished strong in groups a few more minutes back, equally exhausted.  Our workers had pulled out of the race after delivering me to the climbs, wisely opting to save their energy for Joe Martin.

With my first NRC stage race done, I had a whopping 3 days to prepare for the next one!

Tour of the Gila Part I

A few weeks ago, the team packed up for a 2.5 week trip and hit the road.  On the schedule were my first two NRC stage races: The Tour of the Gila and the Joe Martin Stage Race.  I'd been told I could do very well at Joe Martin, but was more excited for the Gila as I love to climb and really suffer....

This trip marked the first real test of my design for the trailer setup, and it worked!

We knocked out the drive in a single day and were warmly greeted at our host houses in Silver City a few days before racing was to begin.  We spent those days riding some of the roads we would race on, including the time trial course, a stretch of road known for its blustery winds and high speeds.  Recon completed, it was time to race.  Our team was joined by Stefan Rothe, a friend from Texas who simply wanted to race hard and be a worker for the team.

Stage 1: 94mi race to Mogollon
Course profile

The race began with nearly 180 racers in the Pro/1 field, and the attacks kicked off immediately.  With the first hour of the race being downhill into a headwind, nothing went anywhere.  No team wanted to take control, so no break ever got more than a few seconds on the field.  The workers on Rio were active following moves, while Trevor, Ian, and I floated in the field saving our energy for the decisive climb at the end of the race: a 7-mile ascent of 1800 vertical feet to Mogollon.

When the field reached the circuits halfway through the race, the pace picked up as breaks began to stay away for longer durations.  The punchy rollers on the loop served as launching points for attacks, and it seemed that perhaps something would finally stick.  Concerned about this possibility and seeing that we were not represented, I began following moves.  Shortly after leaving the circuits, I ended up in a move that was nearly perfect.  Our 9-rider break had a player from every notable team except for Jamis-Sutter Home, and had a 1:30 lead in only a few minutes while Jamis made their way to the front to pull us back.  Our effort lasted nearly 30 minutes before we were caught; I had done my best to conserve energy but nonetheless was not as fresh as I should have been....

We finally made the right turn towards Mogollon and began climbing.  John and Stefan burned their last matches ensuring that Rio's GC riders were at the front, then left it up to us.  We made it over the first pitch halfway up in the lead group across the mesa, then began the final push to the summit.  Ian and I quickly let go of the lead group to maintain our own pace up the painful climb, while Trevor lasted a bit longer.  I was lacking a bit in legs due to my earlier efforts, and ventured deep into the pain cave as we wound up the mountain, hitting pitches as steep as 19%. Finally, at an elevation of 6794', we crossed the line.  Trevor finished 28th 2:19 back, I was 30th at 2:29, and Ian was 34th at 2:34.  We quickly began the recovery process and made the 2 hour drive back to town to rest up for day 2.

Stage 2: 80mi Inner Loop Course
Course profile

This stage featured two category-3 climbs right out of the chute, with a 3rd towards the end of the day after some tiring rollers.  Traditionally a sprint finish for the day, I would be focused on sitting in the field and making the splits.

A general rule-of-thumb is that if the wheel in front of you goes, you go with it.  It was by following this rule only 0.2km into the race that Ian ended up in the all-day break.  With the break established so early, the pack  hit the climbs at a good tempo without causing too much pain.  Since Ian was only 2.5 minutes down in GC, RealCyclist team never gave the break a long leash so as to protect Mancebo's race lead.  For a few minutes, he was the virtual race leader, though!

They set a fast but safe pace down the tricky descent of the Sapillo, and the field swelled as we rode through the valley when riders began catching back on.  The day dragged on uneventfully, and Ian finally came back to the field exhausted after 70 miles off the front.  From then, our main concern was to get to the finish safely without any time splits in the narrow sprint finish.  Sure enough, some riders allowed gaps to open in the sprint and we lost 16 seconds as a result.  Frustrating, but with the time trial the next day it may prove inconsequential....

Check back tomorrow for Part II: Suffering on a new level.