Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mount Hood Classic

Seeing as it’s been a month and a half since Mount Hood, I suppose it’s time I tell you what happened.  After a single day of rest and packing in Fort Collins after my trip home, I was on the road again—this time with the team on the way to Hood River, Oregon for the Mount Hood Cycling Classic.  The race was usually a field stacked with pro teams, but with scheduling conflicts this year for other big races, only a few individual pros would be in attendance.  We wanted to win, and had a legitimate shot at it.

We arrived a day early to preride some of the courses, and ended up renting a double-wide vacation home that overlooked the river and parts of the race course—our host housing didn’t work out (8 guys in a studio apartment with one bathroom and no kitchen simply wouldn’t work for a week).

The prologue time trial was a rolling course of a few miles with a nice little hill to finish.  We expected the winning time to be just over 6 minutes.  My full-effort practice run the day before without any aero gear was a 6:50, which was promising.  Ideally, I wanted 2nd place…. Sounds bizarre, but 2nd place meant that I would be very close to the race lead without the responsibility of defending it.

From my practice run, I tweaked my pacing a tiny bit and only gave it 95% gas up the starting hill.  I recovered a tiny bit on the subsequent fast downhill, and from then on it was all-out.  There wasn’t much thinking to be done, it was just go, go, go, go harder.  The final 250 meters was a steeper uphill pitch all the way to the line, and I sprinted the whole thing, not even giving the growing pain in my legs a second thought.

When I crossed the line, I had posted the fastest time of the day with just under 6:30.  I expected faster times to come, but they didn’t.  To top it off, Scott snagged 2nd with a stellar ride of his own.  The top two steps of the podium were taken by a team that Velonews didn’t even acknowledge as a threat at the race….

Stage 1 featured tons of climbing, with two runs up an especially tough 7 mile climb.  The attacks started immediately, and Rio just made sure that the field stayed together by filling in the gaps.  A third of the way into the race, everything was still together when we hit the big climb for the first time.  Ian Boswell on Trek-Livestrong pegged it the whole way up, blowing the field into pieces.  I finally came unhitched about a mile before the top, and killed myself to catch the group of all the GC contenders on the descent.  Normally, I can use my descending skills to make up time in the corners by taking some risks, but this was just a straight-shot descent without many corners, so I would have to catch them with pure speed—a task made tougher by the fact that physics said I couldn’t go any faster than them.

It took me the entire 7 mile descent to close a 15-second gap, and I was none-to-pleased when most of the field caught us just a few miles later.  The second descent on the loop was a ton of fun—the kind where I could just go up to the front and have a good time railing the turns.

To discourage attacks before the final trip up the climb, Scott motored on the front and kept the pace high.  This time, with everyone a bit more tired, we were going just a tiny bit slower up the climb.  I was unhitched about halfway up this time when the attacks started, opting to keep my own pace rather than follow the surges.  Drew came back near the top from a break that had been up the road, and blew himself up to pace me as I began to ramp up my effort.  In the final miles of the climb, I closed the gap to the lead group that included Trevor from about 20 seconds to 5, and caught them relatively quickly on the descent.  We now only had 20 miles to go, and I had Trevor with me to chase down attacks and keep the group rolling to put time into the groups behind.  In the final kilometers, Trevor sat on the front and just motored to discourage attacks, and it worked.  A Cal-Giant leadout took over with a K to go, and I was able to manage 10th on the stage in the downhill sprint after getting boxed-out 3 different times.  I had lost a few seconds to rivals in time-bonuses, but was still in yellow.

The next morning was the time trial—a fun loop that was predominately downhill and twisty on the way out, and then all uphill and straight on the final leg.  I had the luxury of starting very last as the race leader.  With the heat, I just made sure to loosen up well and get some efforts in beforehand.  

The yellow skinsuit I was wearing was incredibly tight, and oh-so-aero.  I would be counting on the fabled Power of Yellow to win, because I wanted to win both time trials as badly as I wanted to win the whole stage race.

Form fitting, much?
This was the first time I’d ever been followed by the team car in a time trial—they had spare wheels and bikes in the event of a mishap.  With my director and teammates behind me, honking and yelling out the windows, I was spurred onward.  On the downhill leg, I focused on taking the shortest lines possible through the twisty sections, staying low, and hugging the edge of the road for some shelter from the winds.  I took every turn without slowing down—I was not going to waste any time—and sprinted out of the turn before settling down into the bars again.

Stay low to go fast
I had not seen my minute-man at all on the twisty course, but when I made the final turn and popped out on the uphill 5k drag, there he was, just 30 seconds ahead.  The team car behind me continued to honk as I chased the carrot all the way to the line, nearly catching him by the time my aching body rolled across the line in a lactic-acid-induced daze.

Chasing the carrot....
It had been a fast time, we all knew that.  But had I won?!  I was infuriated to learn that I had lost to Nate English by a single piddly second out of nearly 1300 seconds of racing.  Nate needed 4 seconds to take over the race lead, though, so I would be starting the crit that evening in yellow!

The crit was a race that shall live in infamy.  In the first 50 meters of the race, Michael Olheiser (just 20-some seconds down on GC) rolled off the front in the corkscrew turn, and the guy behind him just let him go.  I debated chasing immediately, but decided to let him dangle for a while and burn up all his energy.  

The corkscrew caused some riders to slide out, this time Chase Pinkham right behind me.
My yellow jersey was one big target, and everyone had me marked.  They all looked at me to chase down attacks but wouldn’t do anything if I was there.  I stayed aggressive by attacking and chasing for the first half of the race to keep Olheiser in check.  

Leading the chase
With half the race gone, his lead was a very catchable 15 seconds.  I figured that my job was done and some of the sprinters’ teams would organize to pull him back…but they never did.  

Big field on a small course...tough to move around much
Olheiser was aided by the technical course that slowed the field down but allowed a lone rider to gain time in the turns, and went on to win by 30-something seconds, the new race leader.

The next morning was the final stage, a race with 4 big climbs, and I was second in GC, just a few seconds back.  Without the yellow jersey, I could now go on the attack.  The race started with a long and fast descent, where no breaks would be able to get away.  In the flat miles before the first climb, the field was chaotic on a crappy, half torn-up road that was in the middle of construction.  Just half a kilometer before the first climb, I blew out my front tire on a rough bridge transition.  I quickly stopped and got a wheel and a push from Adam, and raced off to find Chris and John waiting for me.  Those two sprinted me up to the field, which was exploding faster than I would have thought possible.  Riders were nearly standing still as the blew up, while the leaders pulled farther ahead.  I set fire to the whole matchbook to get through them all and close the growing gap, finally rejoining the lead group 5 minutes later.  Then they slowed to a crawl and the field reformed.  I was furious.

After the ripping descent, we made the turn for another trip up the first climb.  This time, I began it among the strongest in the field and was feeling good.  Our group began to whittle down a bit more at the top, and then I felt it....the squishy thump as my rear tire passed over bumps.  I was getting another flat.  I kept riding it as I began sliding back in the pack, telling Trevor about the problem and searching for Drew or John to get a wheel.  I found Drew and he quickly gave me a wheel and a push, and John sprinted me back up to chasing distance of the group.  I finally rejoined just as the group crested the climb.  More needless energy burned.

The snow banks on the sides of the climb had a very cold breeze coming from them.
I recovered as well as I could on the descent.  After the first couple turns, I had to reach back and tighten down my rear brake, as the wheel I got from Drew was much narrower than my original wheel, and the brakes weren't working.

As soon as the road pitched upward again, the strongest riders floored it and raced uphill.  I was spent.  Trevor told me to hang on, that he would pace me up to them, but I didn't have it. It was like the brakes were on and my legs were giving out from all the chasing back on after flat tires.  I told Trevor to ride for himself, and Drew paced me up with a chase group.  We crested the climb, but the leaders were long gone.  As we went through the feedzone, some kind rider behind me told me to open up my brakes....  It turns out, when I had adjusted them after the wheel change, they were rubbing too little for me to notice but enough to make me work harder.  Excellent.

Well, my race was done.  The leaders were gone.  I had given everything, but luck was not on my side this time.  I struggled in to finish 19th on the stage (and GC), whereas Trevor had a great ride and salvaged 5th place for the team.

It was a great race that didn't work out quite like we'd hoped, but it was awesome to wear yellow through all but the last stage!