This is a repost from the 2013 season. We are selecting a few member’s blog posts to show here in order to fill out the Rodeo vibe while we get 2014 up and running.
“&^*#$^!!!! NEVER WORK ON YOUR BIKE ON RACE DAY!”
These are the words I muttered to myself on my back patio at 11:07 this last Sunday morning. I had just threaded a new rear shifter cable into it’s housing only to find out that it was about six inches too short to do the job. Turns out it was a front shifter cable! More $@%@! No matter, I had a complete bike in the basement that I could rob another cable from. I promptly removed and installed that cable only to find that it was about 1/4″ too short as well.
“WHAT AM I DOING HERE RIGHT NOW, I’M SUPPOSED TO BE ON MY WAY TO SALIDA”
Sunday was race day. Sunday was Salida Road Race, the State Championship. Sunday was a day I had waited an entire year for. Last year I peaked perfectly for Salida and rode a smart race. I observed the course carefully, sized up my competition, and let loose a pretty decent final sprint. I was good enough that all the way until about five feet from the line I was the winner on the road. Then in the last five feet I was outgunned and ended up in 2nd. At the time I thought I was content with the outcome but over this last year that 2nd place has been a burning ulcer of disappointment. The more I thought about that race the more I realized that it may have been my best possible chance at scoring a state championship win. Even if you are in perfect shape and ride smart there are so many factors in road races that are beyond your control. Targeting a single race to win and actually winning it is statistically about as probable as getting struck by lightning while on your way to cash in your winning lottery ticket. It has never happened to me and I’ve never won a single race I targeted.
Early Sunday morning I took my bike around the block to check out brakes, shifting and air pressure. Two of the three checked out but my rear shifter was lazy going down to the 11. The golden rule of working on your bike is to never work on it the day of a race or even the night before. You should be prepared well in advance. For most races I would have followed that rule but a hesitant shift to the 11 might be enough to torpedo an otherwise winning sprint. I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance in this race. Another year of regret would be all but unbearable.
With a half hour left before I needed to start the drive to Salida I cut the cable and went to work re-threading it. Normally this is a five minute process. The bike should have been ready to race in no time at all but an hour of indescribable and inexplicable frustration ensued and I found myself thirty minutes behind schedule with zero race-able bikes in my possession. When I’m excited about a race I often dream of not being able to find my shoes or wheels and missing the start. It is a recurring nightmare. On Sunday morning I actually lived out that nightmare and was in extreme danger of missing the registration cutoff and thus missing the race.
In a panic I threw the bike in the car, drove down the street, drove home, picked up my shorts that I forgot, then finally picked up a rear shift cable at Turin. After that I broke exactly zero speed limits or traffic laws and arrived in Salida relaxed and with plenty of time to install the cable, register, and warm up.
That last sentence is a lie.
I arrived in Salida in a continued state of panic. I registered in the nick of time, did a quick and fairly shoddy cable installation, and put in an epic 2.73 mile warmup before lining up flustered at the start of the 35+ Cat 3 race. Never would I have thought that I could screw up the morning of my most important race of the year so badly, but I had managed to do just that.
I had to put all of that behind me though. I was at the starting line, I was waiting for the whistle, my bike worked, I was well trained, I had imagined the course in my head hundreds of times, and I had a plan. It was time to race my best race and hope for some redemption.
Off went the whistle in an anti-climactic chirp. It underscored the galactic significance of the race. Off we went.
(A note: most of these images below are the fine work of Bo Bickerstaff who was generous enough to let me post them here. They aren’t of my exact race but they show the beauty of the day in Salida very well. Thanks Bo!)
My warmup had been awful so for the first two laps of the race my hope was to only focus on warming up properly. The race itself was actually only a disappointing six laps compared to last year’s eight so I didn’t have much time to waste building up steam. Things would probably develop quickly in a race this short so I not only wanted to get properly warmed up, I needed to be ready to toss that plan out the window and adapt if other people had other plans. As it turned out, people had other plans. Volo showed up to the race with three racers and quickly set about pushing a difficult pace up the first climb. Near the top of the first lap I was dismayed to look down and see that my heart rate was already at 189 out of a possible 189 beats per minute. I was maxed out less than 3 miles into the race. So much for warming up!
Thankfully the course next presented us with a nice long descent and I was able to catch my breath on the way down. Near the bottom I remembered how technical things got last year so I jumped to the front to practice the tight technical corners and really just to force everyone else behind me to slow down and ride my speed. Turning into the tight off camber 90 degree turn at the bottom of the circuit, memories of last year’s race came rushing back. I had entered that turn first and opened up a good gap to everyone behind me going into the finish. That tight turn presented a great opportunity for a good long distance uphill sprinter to cause some damage. On every subsequent lap of this year’s race I made sure to be the first rider to enter the turn so that I could test out cornering speeds and visualize my final (and hopefully more successful) sprint in this years race.
I don’t really think Salida is a great breakaway course. The course is one giant gradual climb with a small set of steep walls at the top. It then descends for 3ish miles before tilting up for the finish line and doing it all over again. The climb isn’t really steep enough to cater to the climbing specialists and the descent is long and fast enough that a determined peloton usually doesn’t have any trouble reeling in anyone who dares jump off the front on the hill. In most cases the race seems to end in a bunch sprint.
Going into lap 2 things were still well under control. Volo set the pace and we cruised up the climb for the second time. This time though Brendan Cusick of GS Boulder let loose a nice attack that set everyone scrambling to grab his wheel and keep pace to the top. I didn’t really want to spend any matches or go that hard that early so I only made the minimum effort required not to lose contact with the main group. Brendan managed a small gap by the top of the climb and sailed over the summit without slowing down or looking back. When the group hit the top we all seemed collectively happy to let him dangle on the downhill. It was too early to break away and one man wouldn’t be able to stay away alone, right?
Brendan hadn’t gotten the memo that his attack was doomed and soldered on alone just at the edge of our vision. Heading into the hill the third time I started counting time splits silently. 20 seconds, 25 seconds, 32, seconds, 35 seconds. Brendan wasn’t slowing down, he was building a gap. I finally called out the split out loud to the rest of the peloton.
“He’s got 35 seconds, we should work a bit harder” I said.
Volo went to the front, I traded some pulls, and some other riders pitched in. I didn’t have any teammates in the race so I tried to help the effort but not do anything I couldn’t recover from. Other riders without teams were clearly thinking the same thing because there weren’t many hands on deck to take pulls. On the last left turn heading into the steeps of the climb a corner marshal called out 35 seconds. We hadn’t pulled back any time. I started to worry. Something had to be done.
“Don’t do anything Stephen, the peloton should handle this” I said to myself.
Stephen didn’t listen though, Stephen panicked. Near the base of the final steep walls on the climb I let loose a bit of an attack. I didn’t know what the goal of the attack was, but Brendan had too much time and if I had to attack to motivate a chase then so be it. I popped over the first little wall and saw Brendan heading up the second little wall.
He didn’t seem to be going very fast. I put my head down and kept going into the second wall. At the summit I looked again and was shocked at what I saw: Brendan was only about 20 feet in front of me at the top of the climb. I was spent but I saw the opportunity to just finish the job and grab his wheel, so I did. I did a quick glance back and didn’t see anyone else directly behind me.
“Let’s go, we’ve got this!” I said. He looked back.
“Did you just bridge?” He said.
“I did, let’s go!” I said excitedly.
Off we went.
For the next lap or so Brendan and I worked together really well. He had soloed an entire lap and still showed tons of strength. Animal! I kept an eye on the power meter during my pulls and kept it pegged right at or just above threshold when it was my turn to work. I didn’t know how the peloton was reacting or if we were going to be reeled in but the smartest way to ride a break is to avoid getting excited and blowing yourself up. Find a pace you can truly hold and then hope the peloton never gets it’s act together enough to pull you back. Going into the time check on lap 4 we had 40 seconds. We soldiered on. The check on lap 5 clocked at 47 seconds. We were killing it, and clearly there was a lack of resolve behind us in the chase.
It was then that I started thinking that we might have this race locked up between the two of us. I also started thinking about the very real possibility that I might end up in second place again. I had always though this race was going to end in a bunch sprint and I didn’t have a plan for how to try and win out of a breakaway. This was all new to me. Earlier in the year at the Louisville Crit James Dunkleberger and I had worked together in a two man break for almost an hour to hold off the peloton. When the bell lap came in that race I didn’t think about winning; what we’d accomplished in the break was winning enough. I took the final pull of the race then sat up out of respect for our cooperation. Dunkleberger got that win and I was happy to see him get it. I felt like I had won as well. Salida was different though. Once again I had nothing but respect for my breakaway companion but this time I desperately wanted to avoid 2nd place.
So on the sixth lap of Salida, for the second time in the season, I was in a two man break and I heard the bell lap ring. I was within reach of my season’s goal. All of the frustration of last year’s race could be made right if I could race the final lap correctly.
I had noticed on lap five that Brendan’s pulls had started getting a bit shorter. At first I thought he might be resting for the finish, but the more I observed the more I thought that he might just be tired. On lap six my options were few. Regardless of the reason, I didn’t want to tow a guy to the line who was taking short pulls. Best case he was just slowing me down and worst case he was going to come alive on the sprint. At the time check on the final trip up the hill our lead had been cut to thirty seconds. In a single lap we’d lost close to 20 seconds. The peloton had woken up to their plight. If they didn’t get their act together they were racing for third. They upped their pace considerably and no doubt fatigue was coming at us from the opposite direction and slowing us down.
On the steeps of the last hill I made my move. I needed to try to go it alone. I didn’t really know if I could shake Brendan but regardless of whether I did or not our pace needed to increase if we wanted to survive to the line. I dug as deeply as I could manage and sprinted up the final two walls to the top of the course. I glanced back. No more Brendan (who I learned later was suffering from cramping). I was on my own.
The last time I’d felt panic like I felt on Sunday was last year at Mead Roubaix where I similarly found myself off the front alone mere miles from the finish of the race. Being alone at the end is a pretty dark place for me. My body screams at me that it has had enough and can’t give any more while my mind screams that I mustn’t let myself down and must find a way to continue through the pain of seared legs and lungs. I tried to find a compromise. I sprinted back up to speed and dropped into the most aero tuck I could find. When my speed dipped too much I sprinted again then tucked again. This back and forth gave me precious little rest. Meanwhile my mind was filled with images of a furious peloton charging down the hill behind me gobbling up the tarmac as it went. Panic was my constant companion all the way down the course as was the realization that somehow, right now, I was pretty close to winning this thing.
At the bottom of the course, on the nasty right hander heading into the nasty uphill finishing straight the balance of panic and excitement started tilting in favor of excitement. I could see the finish line just up the rise and I had the sense that I hadn’t been fully caught yet. I put in a pretty miserable final standing sprint then I sat down into a seated sprint when my legs emancipated themselves from my brain’s demands. I glanced back, saw a nice gap, pulled my jersey tight, sat up with my arms in the air, and coasted across the line. Relief, disbelief, and the sense of floating flooded my head. Things got a little quiet. I couldn’t quite make sense of what had happened. I won!
I don’t really know what else there is to write about Sunday. I still have a little bit of trouble absorbing it. Clearly it was a miniscule achievement in the grand scheme of sport and life but as it relates to me and racing my bike it was an intensely personal victory. Especially rewarding was that I won it riding with aggression, not by sitting in. This entire 2013 season I’ve made it a point to ride every race aggressively. I’ve been in dozens of breakaways this year, sometimes with break mates and sometimes alone. We spent many many miles in the futile pursuit of glorious wins. No matter how “good” my attempts this year, I hadn’t got the W. As the races have ticked by I’ve had a lot of doubt about my approach. Statistics say that sitting in and sprinting is the more successful route to a win, and there is no shame in going with that approach. I didn’t want to do that this year though, I wanted to try something new and find a fresh challenge. To have that approach finally work out in the one race of the year that I most wanted to do well in was beyond what I could realistically hope for. If I hadn’t finally won this race the entire season may have been written off as a frustrating failure. A single good result changed all of that. Now I get to say that 2013 was the best season yet.