My first race of the year with the team was the Merco Classic, in Merced, CA. It was also one of my first races of the year outright--very bizarre for me to not already have a dozen races under my belt by the start of March, but such is my new life as a Coloradoan, I guess.
Merced isn't a very large town, and there weren't a lot of options as far as hotels go. We bunked up at the--not kidding here--Vagabond Inn.
I was well-rested coming into the race because we had some big plans afterward, which meant that stage 1 was also serving the purpose of my openers for the weekend. I felt fine at the moderate intensities, but as soon as we would go hard, my heartrate shot through the roof. The legs were good, though, and ready for some racing.
Stage 1 was only 80 miles or so--6 laps of the course that was flat to rolling, with one tough 5-minute climb early on. With a field of 150 racers and only a few dozen pro's, the first few laps were aggressive but mostly just served to weed out the amateurs that couldn't hang. For the final few laps, the Bissell and Optum teams lit it up on the climb to see if a break could get established over the top. We came close a few times but everything eventually came back.
On the last lap after the climb, it became obvious that we would be executing our leadout plan; Bissell was thinking along the same lines. With 5k to go, our train was fully organized and we took over from the Bissell train. I was in the lead 3 riders, rotating at a hard pace but not burning out yet. With 4k to go, Bissell sent up a couple of riders to help keep the pace high.
3k to go marked the burnout phase of our 9-man train. Bajadali, then Jesse, then I each ramped the pace up further until we could go no more, then swung off. I finished shortly before the 2k mark, and left it up to the likes of Creed, Friedman, Zwizanski, Zirbel, and Candelario to deliver Hanson to the line. The most difficult part was getting back into the field and hanging on after burning out, because we didn't want a disadvantage going into the time trial.
Even with the perfect execution, we simply didn't have the speed necessary at this early-season race to finish it off, and Hanson got swarmed just as he was opening his sprint. Live to fight another day--the next day was the TT.
My age not-withstanding, I'm holding myself to a very high standard in time trials this year. I'm racing to win and want to establish myself as a time trial specialist among the likes of Zirbel, Zwizanski, and Friedman. I had one of the best 30-second men in the race in the form of Ben Jacques-Maynes. I was chasing that carrot all day, but could only pull him to within 15 seconds.
In the crit, we just wanted to stay safe until we initiated the leadout with 12 laps to go. With the tight, turn-laden course covered in box-dots, it was not an especially fast race, but it was difficult to move around. Taking control of the front first was key, because it would be difficult to get organized once it began. Unfortunately, Bissell had the same thought and pulled the trigger one lap before we were to amass at the front. With control taken, our train could never get organized in the swarm. We decided to let the sprint squad fight it out as the rest of us focused on getting to the finish in the lead group.
Well wouldn't you know it, amateur hour claimed me with 3 laps to go in the final corner. Guys resfusing to accept the fact that, 40-riders back, their race was over because they would never see the front again on that course with so few laps remaining kept fighting for position and banging around. Their needless zeal for mediocrity caused a pileup that I almost got around, but was knocked into. I went up and over the top, finally hitting pavement on the other side. My left leg was tangled in my bike with guys laying on top of it, but my main concern was my GC time, and my left wrist which I had obviously just re-sprained. With no free laps remaining, my GC place would depend on what time the officials gave me.
I was in a mood to crack some skulls, I can tell you that much. I'd lost 30-something seconds on GC time because of the crash, dropping from 4th to 9th in GC, and my wrist was going to make the final stage (120 miles) miserable.
The last stage was on a course that was dead flat with the exception of a couple small rollers a few miles from the end of the lap. I had taped my wrist to give it a little extra support, but I quickly learned that the hoods were only comfortable when out of the saddle. The rest of the time would be spent in the drops. Unexpected bumps in the road sent shocks of pain up my arm. If I could see them coming, I could at least grip extra tight and my wrist wouldn't be jarred.
The race was very fast and aggressive, as both Exergy and Optum wanted to unseat Bissell from the GC lead. We finally got Zwiz and Friedman in the 4-man break, but they were doing most of the work. The lead quickly ballooned to 5 minutes--putting them well into the virtual lead--as the Bissell team set up shop on the front. For a couple of laps, the gap simply was not coming down to Bissell's frustration, but eventually the break tired too much.
|Me trying to give my wrist a rest|
With the impending capture of the break, our team started launching bombs with two laps to go. The excitement of racing again helped me forget about the pain in my wrist on one particular road that was probably last paved around the time I was born.
The nature of the course and the size of the field meant that it was very difficult for anything to get away. The 120 mile race was finished in 4:15, with Hanson second on the stage and Zirbel finishing 3rd in GC.
With the race completed, the squad relocated to San Jose for 3 days of Tour of California recon rides, making for a tough 7-day block of racing/training. They were some pretty fantastic courses that I hope I get the opportunity to race next month....