Saturday, August 13, 2011

Baby steps are too slow

I've been called out by many people on my lack of posts recently.  For all my spare time, I manage to fill it with everything but updating my blog...

Since Mt. Hood so long ago, I've won the best amateur jersey at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, got a top-10 at the Elite Nationals Time Trial, a top-10 at the Cascade Cycling Classic prologue, won the Colorado State Road Race Championships, and was signed to a pro team for the rest of the year.  Just when I think the year can't get any better, I'm proven wrong time and again.

My first race with Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth would be the Tour of Elk Grove outside of Chicago--the richest 3-day race in the US with $155,000 up for grabs.  Thursday morning, I went out for a quick ride to shake the legs out and get in a few efforts, then a few hours later was in the air, Chicago-bound.

After meeting my new teammates and sorting out the time trial bikes the next morning, we went for a spin on the prologue course--a T-shaped course, run counter-clockwise, 4 miles and change in length.  I was supposed to be one of the first to go on the team, but the promoter somehow flipped the start-order of all the teams, and I became one of the last to go.  The winning time for the past few years was right around 8:30, so I predicted a time of 8:45 for me based on my other prologues this year.

All of the teams were set up along one road in the expo, so spectators could wander along and watch us all warm up and talk to us--a new, and cool, experience for me.  Even though it was only 80ish degrees, the humidity was such that I may as well have gone swimming before my start.

My family was back home watching the race on the interwebs, and my dad gets points for being able to pick me out in my new getup (I barely recognized myself).

So there I was, on the start ramp for the Tour of Elk Grove prologue, my first race as a pro bike racer.  What  was I thinking? Go fast, mane.

And shiny side up.

I've only come down from altitude a few times now after fully acclimating, and every time I've learned that my body can go harder than it seems I should be able to.  Especially in prologues, I have to remind myself that unless I keep pushing the pace higher, the pain won't increase like normal.  Basically, screw pacing, just go hard.

So that's what I did.  I killed it from the start, and half a mile later was at the first u-turn.  This was the tightest one, and I came in hot.  Half-way through I had to grab brakes, but popped out at the curb and was back on the gas.  The radar speed limit sign as I passed by the start/finish said 33.  I railed the right-hand turn and continued to push.  I was a bit gun-shy going into the next u-turn, even though it was much wider.  I stayed off the brakes, but got out of the aero bars.  Angry that I could have gone faster through the turn, I vowed to stay in the aero bars through the next one.

I finally got there, railed the turn in the aero bars, but got on the power too soon and kicked the back wheel in the air with a nice pedal-check at better than 30 mph. In the aero bars.  Fun stuff.

It hardly phased me, though, and I began the ratchet the pain up higher as I closed on the last turn.  I needed every inch of the road as I again stayed away from the brakes, and killed myself to get to the line.  At the end of the day, I ended up 17th with a time of 8:40.  Better than predicted!

The next two stages are usually field sprints, and after the tight prologue the race is usually decided by the time bonuses during the race.  Our plan was for me, our highest-placed rider after the prologue, to try to get up the road early and sweep some time bonuses before the inevitable catch, and hang on in the fast field sprint.

I was active from the gun, trying to get into breaks for the first few laps on the 10-mile course.  Every lap had 26 turns, and all the accelerating out of every turn was killing me.  I've been racing up mountains all year, and this was essentially a 100-mile crit.  I got away a few times, but never for long enough to sprint for time bonuses.  Finally a large group got away, but I was not in it.  I had teammates there, but I was definitely upset to have missed the break in my first race.

In the mix at the front of the field
As the break's lead grew over 2 minutes half-way through, United Healthcare set up their train on the front, and in 2 laps brought the break back.  The field was gassed from the brutal pace UHC had set, and Dan Holloway told me I needed to get to the front stat.

Stat means now.

I was dying from my efforts in the first half of the race, but I knew he was right and I busted it up one side of the field, he the other.  Dan followed the first move to attack the instant the break was caught, but the field wasn't ready to let another get away just yet.  Immediately, a group of 3 leapt away just before a corner and established a small, but tangible, gap.

2 more riders jumped away in pursuit and I continued my seated sprint to the front, skirting the edges of the pack and staying as low as I could.  I kept my momentum and shot off the front as soon as I got there, my sights focused on the the two riders just ahead.  I quickly made the junction, and the three of us closed the gap to the leaders.  We kept the pace high, and the twisty course gave a solid advantage to a small, cohesive group.

Our break included Dahlheim, fellow Texan, from Bissell
Just snag some time bonuses, because it's sure to be a field sprint, I thought.  UHC had missed the move, as well as some other teams, so certainly we'd be pulled back.  The group was working well together, and after a lap, I heard my director, Jonas, honking the car behind me.  I dropped back and grabbed a bottle while talking tactics with him.  I was the highest-placed rider in the break, the field had sat up--UHC had blown themselves in their efforts earlier--we had a 2-minute gap over a small chase group.  In short, this was a legitimate yellow-jersey opportunity.

At the conclusion of that lap, I sprinted for the time bonus, taking 2nd for a 2-second bonus.  Keep it rolling, Jonas said, this was big.

Half-way through the lap, an awkward rotation through a corner opened a gap, as had happened several times already. The split was 3-and-3, and I thought nothing of it, that we would simply rejoin and continue on.  By the time I realized we weren't getting back on, I was also discovering that my legs were done.

I was with Dahlheim and an Exergy rider, and the three of us were all cooked, slowly losing time on the others and falling back to the chase group just 1:45 in arrears.  The Exergy rider dropped off, and it was just me and Andrew in no-man's land, with a lap to go.

Both of us were completely cracked.  Then the moto ref told us two chasers were coming up fast, and indeed they were.  Fast Freddie Rodriguez and a GEOX rider had broken free of the chase group and were motoring by us.  We sprinted to get on the wheel, and sat on as they rotated.  I wanted to contribute, but simply couldn't.  Finally, with a few miles to go, my last goo kicked in and my legs were rested enough to resume working for GC time.

With just a kilometer to go, we caught the Fly-V rider that had been dropped from the leaders.  We now had a shot at the podium!  My sprint was one of the best I've had, considering how fatigued I was, and was edging out Dahlheim and the GEOX rider for 3rd until the final 25 meters, when I faded and was passed by both.  Nonetheless, 5th place!  The GC race had just become much more selective.

When the dust settled, I was in 3rd overall, 54 seconds from 2nd, and just 5 seconds ahead of Fast Freddie.

The final stage, a circuit race around the prologue course, would be hotly contested with 1st and 2nd, and 3rd and 4th in GC separated by only a few seconds each, and several time bonuses up for grabs.  And I had to defend against Fast Freddie.

Thankfully, a large group of non-threats got away early and swept most of the time bonuses. I had some very experienced teammates leading me through the field and making sure I was staying rested and out of trouble. The break came back, and it was certainly going to be a field sprint at the end. Dan pipped Freddie at the line for a sprint bonus to steal a second, but Freddie had still gotten 2.

Then, as the race was winding down, the field was hotting up, and everyone gets a little on edge, the storms rolled in.  Storms so heavy that the roads were nearly flash-flooding, the rain stung as it hit our faces, and we could barely see the rider 2 bike-lengths ahead at 40 mph.  Our brakes stopped working in the heavy rains, and the field became frantic as everyone began fighting for the front.  My teammates sold out for me, battling the rain alongside UHC's leadout train so that we would stay away from the certain crashes.

Downpour, much?

As we rolled through the start-finish for one lap to go, our train was sprinting up the right side to reclaim position when all bedlam rained down on us.  Someone far up had crossed wheels, and bodies and bikes were flying everywhere.

It was nice knowing you world, but there's no way I'm not going to flip over the 2 bodies and 3 bikes sprawled in front of me.  My brakes don't work and we're doing well over 30 mph, I'm gonna meet the pavement.

Then, somehow, the bodies tumbled out of my way.  My bike rammed the other bikes in front of it, and knocked them out of the way.  Just as quickly as it began, the road ahead of me was clear.  And the race leaders--most importantly Freddie--were getting away.  Time to sell out!  Cash in all the chips! Close that gap!

You can see me on the left, just getting through the mayhem
I was making ground on the leaders, but they weren't slowing down and I was all on my own.  Then a very welcome sight: Mike Creed coming back for me!  He sprinted up to speed as I neared, and brought me back to the leaders as we hit the first turn of the lap.  Only 20 or so riders remained in the field now.

All I had to do was finish with or ahead of Freddie, and the podium was mine!  Despite Emile Abraham needlessly pushing me into the curb with a grin on his face just because he could, I managed to defend my position in the sprint.  Debut race with my first pro team, and with the help of my teammates and a serious case of SIO (you either know it or you don't) in conditions that had me freaking out, and I was on the podium.

Baby steps? Pssh.  You just get there slower that way.

And I managed to fit the jumbo check in the bike case for the flight back.  Sweet.

I kinda like this bike racer thing.