Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cherry Blossom Stage 4: Me = CRACKED

            I was extremely nervous going in to the final decisive stage of the Blossom on Sunday.  It didn’t exactly help things that our race was the last one of the day and didn’t start until almost 1 P.M.  I managed to sleep in a bit, but still spent hours trying desperately to relax (relaxing in desperation isn’t really possible I discovered).  About an hour prior to my start, Lisa rolled back in to the host house from her race and promptly collapsed on the floor.  She reported that the course was indeed brutal, and that the hardest climb was not the gravel one, but the paved one immediately prior to it.  She still managed to hang with the leaders for her entire race only getting dislodged on the climb to the finish line.  I was hoping that I could do the same.  I kept telling myself that I had no problems riding at the front on the climb on stage 1, so this one should be no different.  With that thought in my head, I set out to warm up on the course.
            I had done this stage last year as a Cat. 4, and the race had gone quite well for me then.  This year, the course included different roads however, roads with much longer nastier climbs on them.  I managed to roll down to the base of one of these new climbs on my warmup, but didn’t have time to climb up it.  It did look steep, but I couldn’t see much of it and assumed that it wasn’t much longer than the climbs on the short Cat 4 circuit from what I remembered of the course profile.  Little did I know that this unseen climb would soon be the undoing of my GC hopes.

Lined up at the start.  I wasn't consciously posing like a superhero, honest! Alex Clemens zipping up his jersey to the right of me, and #2 on GC in the second row in the Fare Start kit.  Photo by Leonard Johnson.

            I made my way back to the start line, and slotted in at the front of the pack for the beginning of our race.  The officials informed us that we would have the whole width of the road for the final climb to the finish line, but that we wouldn’t need it since our field was guaranteed to be blown apart.  This didn’t make me feel terribly secure about my one-minute lead on most of my competition.  With that warning, we finally got the race underway and I stopped worrying and started pedaling.
            The first two laps of the race were on the short loop that had formed the entirety of our course last year in Category 4.  I rode near the front on those loops and was feeling quite comfortable on the climbs.  A couple of little attacks went away, but nothing stuck and I was beginning to feel confident that I might just hold on to the lead.  I didn’t begin to have any difficulty until the feed zone climb immediately prior to when we would set out on to the long circuit with the bigger hills.  On the feed zone climb, someone accelerated at the front (I think it was one of the Hammer kids) and the pace within the group increased significantly.  The pack immediately strung out and I soon realized that people were coming around me as I slid backwards through the peloton.  I dug deep and fortunately managed to avoid being gapped due to the shortness of the climb.  I managed to remain in the lead group, but was near the back with little room to “packslide” should I run in to difficulty again on a climb.
            After the feedzone, we turned on to a steep fast descent that presented no opportunity for me to improve my position in the group.  Immediately after going down this hill, we began the steep paved climb that I had glimpsed during my warmup.  Again, someone at the front began to drill it and the pack strung out.  The climb was made significantly harder by the fact that we had a tailwind as we ascended.  This had the effect of giving riders further back in the pack (like myself) little to no advantage from their position.  We had to work just as hard as the guys in the front since we were all feeling the wind equally.  About halfway up this climb, I started to feel really bad.  I was having to push harder and harder just to hold the wheel in front of me, and soon I was at my absolute limit and was still losing that wheel.  Riders began to come around me as I drifted backwards.  I realized that if I lost contact with this group I would probably never regain it and would surely lose the GC lead.  I tried as hard as I could to find some last bit of power in reserve but it was simply not there.  I had cracked.  Blown.  Shattered.  A rider in a green kit pulled up next to me and said “come on leader, grab my wheel!”  He slowed down and did all he could to try to pace me back on to the group near the top of the climb.  All I could do to thank him for his efforts to help was to say “aughhahdhdf”.  What I meant to say was “thanks a ton, I really appreciate it, but I simply cannot pedal this bicycle any harder right now”.  He eventually realized, perhaps from my incoherent comment to him, that I was already way beyond my limit and pedaled up to the field without me.  I wish I could remember which team he was on so I could figure out who he was.  It truly was a nice gesture to try to help me out like that, but I was too wrecked to remember anything but the color of his kit.
            Finally, I crested the climb and began descending the other side about 50 meters off the back of the pack.  I tried to get as aero as possible in an attempt to sneak back up to them, but didn’t make up much ground.  At the bottom of the descent was a flat section with a headwind.  I found myself down there, riding as hard as I could, desperately trying to ride through that wind back in to the group.  It was heartbreaking to see them slowly gaining ground on me as I desperately gave it everything I had to try and rejoin them.  After a few minutes of this, I realized that I had a passenger in my draft.  A Team Oregon rider was calmly tucked in behind me, and would not pull through despite my desperate, oxygen indebted elbow flicks.  I was losing the race, and I thought that if this guy would just pull through, both of us could possibly rejoin the leaders.  I got more and more frustrated with him, and attempted to swerve across the road and accelerate to shake him from my draft.  I was so shattered that my acceleration didn’t amount to much, and he calmly remained there until we made a right turn onto the long gravel climb.  Once we began climbing, he came around and attacked, easily dropping me after my long effort against the wind.  “Thanks for nothing!” I shouted at him as he rode away.  If only my green friend from the climb had stuck around for the flat stretch afterwards. 
            As I climbed the gravel road, I used my anger to motivate me to keep the Team Oregon rider in sight. I was feeling much better than on the previous climb where I had popped and got in to a rhythm, pedaling with some strength again.  I kept tracking him as I ascended, passing dropped riders from our field and the masters race along the way.  Near the top of the climb I was caught by Alex Clemens (also from Team Oregon), and Alex Telitsine who was currently 2nd on GC, only 8 seconds behind me from the time trial.  I was able to match the pace of this pair without difficulty, and we became a trio as we crested the hill and began speeding down the winding descent.

Ascending the gravel climb with Alex Clemens and Alex Telitsine post cracking. Clemens was riding strong! Photo by Leonard Johnson.

            After the descent, we promptly caught the Team O guy who had pissed me off earlier.  He apologized, explaining that he had a teammate in the lead group who had designs on taking the leader’s jersey off my shoulders, so that he tactically shouldn’t help me to re-join the group.  I was still pissed, but I had to admit that he had a point.  I took a step back and realized that this whole thing is essentially a game that we were playing, and his tactics made sense.  His teammate would certainly overtake me on GC.  However, if he had worked with me, we could both have possibly rejoined the leaders, instead of both being off the back.  Whatever, its water under the bridge at this point.
            On the final lap of the course, Alex from Team O did the lion’s share of the work.  He set a solid tempo on the big climbs; we overtook multiple riders that had been popped from the lead group, and most of them couldn’t hang with the pace we were riding.  I certainly had to work a bit to stay on his wheel.  On the flat stretches, we worked together well, with everyone rotating through and taking good pulls.  It was understood in our group that we were all out of contention for high GC placings, and it would be advantageous to all of us to work together to finish as quickly as possible.
            Finally, we reached the descent leading down to the climb to the finish line.  The Team O guy who had pissed me off earlier accelerated, and I grabbed his wheel, where I remained until the finish line.  I didn’t bother to sprint around him to grab 19th place or whatever it would have been.  We passed Travis Monroe, who must have had a bad day and blew up spectacularly like I had earlier.  After crossing the line our little group hung out and chatted about the previous couple of hours of suffering.  Racing is great that way; one minute you can be in absolute agony, ready to strangle the guy next to you, but after you cross the finish line, most dudes are slapping each other on the back, congratulating each other on a good effort.
            So in conclusion, I had a bad day on the bike on stage 4.  I cracked and watched the race lead ride away from me up a hill.  I’m not sure if it was entirely from the day’s effort or if it was cumulative, but I felt ill for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  I was starving, but felt too sick to eat anything until much later, and even then had to force down the food.  It sounds like a horrible day and perhaps a ridiculous way to spend ones spare time.  However, as a whole, the race was an awesome experience.  There is little I enjoy more than pushing myself to my physical limits and competing with other guys that share my bicycle obsession.  I can’t wait to get out there in another stage race and see if I can be in the mix for the overall lead again.

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