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 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!