Wednesday, April 18, 2012


After a nice 10-day break to rest up after the Merco/TOC Recon trip, I was headed back to California for the third time this year to race the Redlands Classic. We were taking a great squad to win the race, with both strength and experience.  This would be my first time doing the race, but I had a couple of teammates that have done this race more times than they can count on their fingers.

The prologue time-trial was only a few miles long, and predominately uphill.  The suffering would only last 9-ish minutes, and I during my preride the day before I had decided on how I wanted to pace the effort.  I had forgotten my ipod at the house, and spent most of my warmup mourning its absence:

The prologue was a mixed-bag for me: I successfully paced the course exactly as I wanted to, and timed my final push for the line perfectly.  The downside was that my legs didn't deliver me as quickly as I'd wished, and I rode to a 15th place finish.  On the upside, I'd taken another 'win' in the season-long duel between me and Zirbel.... Jesse was our best-placed rider in 8th, and most of the team was in the top-30, so at least we had plenty of cards to play in the upcoming stages.

That night, I and the 3 others staying at our host house each spent some quality time with the toilet.  The next morning, we decided that our ailment must have been the work of some bad chicken we'd had at dinner; it was the only food that all of us had eaten.

The first stage was a 120-mile road race, with a tough climb towards the end of each lap.  With the size of the field, we held our cards close until many of the amateurs tired in the first 80 miles, then we lit the fuse on the climb to see if the field would split.  Each lap, there were breaks in the field over the top of the climb, but everything kept coming back together.  The lead group continued to dwindle in size, but all of the key players were still present.

As I would learn after the race, I was not the only one fighting cramps and feeling a bit sub-par late in the race; my housemates were also suffering, presumably from dehydration as a result of our bad chicken.

By the end of the race, our and others' attacks had shrunk the field to about 60 riders, and we still had everyone there. Zirbel was taken out in a stupid crash just a couple of kilometers from the finish--thankfully, he would get the same time as our group.  We failed to organize our leadout, and Bissell's Bevin took the stage win, but our team had continued its march up the GC ladder.

Post-race cleanup and discussion
The crit was a technical 9-corner, 1 mile loop that usually did a good job of wearing racers out.  With 150 racers, it was key for us to start in the front and stay there the whole race.  This would help us avoid the accordion in every corner, and keep us away from crashes.  We were biding our time for the 30-minutes-to-go mark, when we would take control of the front and begin our leadout.  It was a long way out, but was the only sure-fire way to keep us safe.

The finishing straight was the only place on the course for 8 guys to swarm the front together, and it was a bit chaotic but we succeeded in taking the front just before the first turn.  I was again in the front rotation, just keeping the pace high until the real leadout would start later.
We continued averaging 30 mph lap after lap, but made a mistake with 6 laps to go.... We didn't realize that the Bissell team had managed to organize behind us, and we failed to shut down the outside lane early enough on the finishing straight.  They pulled off a perfectly-executed blow-by and brought with them the swarm that disorganized our train.  They certainly weren't going to let us do to them as they'd done to us, and our train could never re-establish control.  It would once again be up to the sprint squad to deliver a result.  I managed to dodge a couple of crashes in the finishing laps and rode it in for a pack finish as Cando snagged the first podium of the race with 2nd.

Like Joe Martin and Nature Valley Grand Prix, the GC is far from set in stone at the beginning of the last stage.  In fact, the Sunset Loop at Redlands is the most significant factor when it comes to final GC placing.  To make what is already the most difficult stage of the race even more interesting, the race was forecast to have high winds and torrential rain--something that apparently has never happened before at this race.

The race is a lollipop course, where we race out of town and then do 12 laps of a circuit through a neighborhood on a hillside before racing back into town to finish on the crit course.  The loop was uphill on one side and a technical and fast descent on the other.

The first few times up the climb, everyone was fresh so the gaps that formed at the bottom weren't too critical, as the climb flattened after the KOM halfway up and we could chase back on.  We stayed aggressive early until Creed made the break and rode up there for a few laps.

When descending by myself or leading a group, I'm what others call a risk-taker.  I don't see it that way, though, when I have a clear line-of-sight and can take my own lines.  Descending in a group, though, can freak me out sometimes.  Especially on a sketchy descent like this one.  I was finally getting comfortable on the descent a few laps in when I felt it.  Just a couple of drops at first, but then a couple of turns later it started dumping.

The next time down, I was even more freaked out, letting gaps open and then having to chase them back over and over again. You may remember that the last time I raced in the wet, it didn't go so well. I love descending in the dry, but wet pavement puts a real damper on things....

The next lap, at the top of the climb, it was time to put our team's plan into action.  Nerves must be placed aside--I had a job to do.  We were going to take control across the top of the climb as a team and blitz the descent to see if we could disorganize Kenda's team and split the field.  I ended up second wheel, behind Friedman the Cannonball, as he blasted down the hill.  This was the first time we were truly testing our Challenge tires and HED wheels in the wet, and we were going all out.

I shut my mind off, and just focused on staying with Friedman.  If his tires could hold through the turns, and if his brakes could slow him down, so could mine, right?  When we finally reached the bottom, we were 15 seconds ahead of the field.  I was high on adrenaline.

Friedman and me pulling away on the descent
While the cold rain continued to pour, the race was hotting up. Friedman and I were caught behind a split in the field the next time up, and as the descent started we were 20 seconds behind the lead group of 15. Our task was now to blast the descent so fast that we could regain contact with the leaders.  With my newfound confidence, I was going wildly fast through the twisting neighborhood; Mike was going even faster.  He was slowly getting away from me, but he couldn't spare the time to wait for me.  He joined up with the leaders just before the climb started again.  When the road pitched up once more, I was just a few seconds off the back of the group, but I couldn't finish it off.

As I climbed at my own pace, I realized that I had just determined my race strategy for the final few laps: I would get my jollies and my adrenaline rush blasting downhill in the pelting rain at 50mph, buying myself some time over my group and getting to sag the first part of the climb at a more comfortable pace.

I pushed the pace extra hard the final time down the descent, as the GC time for our group would be taken at the edge of the crit course (the lead group would be the only one allowed to do the finishing crit laps). I had gained a 15-second advantage as we began to re-enter town, and was pulling away from the group with the help of Christian Helmig from Elbowz Racing.  Then everything fell apart.

I'm still not sure what happened--I think the course marshalls at the final turn to get back to the crit course had packed it up for the day.  The lead group had already made it to the crit and everyone behind us had been pulled and given a pro-rated time, so we were the last ones out there.  Either way, we missed our turn.  We knew something was wrong when there was cross-traffic at intersections.  We were now racing in traffic.

I didn't know where to go, so I was forced to nullify my attack and fall back to the group.  As luck would have it, a commissaire car was behind us, and they told us how to get back to the crit.  The message was sometimes slow to get around the group, and at one point there were guys going the wrong way on a divided road--in traffic.  It was a total mess, but we finally made it to the crit course (at the wrong place) and the comm got our numbers and would later give us a finishing time.

All that mess aside, Cando and Friedman had awesome days.  Cando rode into 3rd on GC to finish the race off well for us.  With that done, we wrung our soggy, cold clothes out and thoroughly enjoyed our hot showers.

As everyone else flew home, Zirbel, Amanda, Bob, and I stayed behind and began preparing for our next adventure: the Vuelta Ciclista del Uruguay.