Despite once again ending up as mid-pack detritus, the Northern California/Nevada Road Race Championship was, by far, the most fun I've had in a race this year.
On a rolling high desert course, at the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, the race featured 4, 11-mile long laps, on good pavement, at Denver-esque elevation (5,100-5,700 feet).
Each lap included:
- A fast four mile long downhill, beginning only 1.2 miles from the start
- 2 climbs, totaling 800 feet, about a mile apart. The first was short but steep (12% max), and the second longer, but not as steep (8%).
- Otherwise, the road was flat to rolling, rising gently but relentlessly, over the final 4 miles back to the start/finish.
The weather was cool and clear with light breezes, as 36 riders in the "Masters 55-59" category lined up for our 8:15 start time (and, BTW, doesn't "Masters" sound a lot better than "Seniors"?). Thankfully, the race organizers decided to split up what had been planned as a combined field with Masters 50-54. Otherwise, we would have had nearly 80 at the start line!
At about 2 km into the race, I was about 2/3 of the way back in the group, thinking about my teammate Gina's recent race reports about being more aggressive. Having just started, the pace was still pretty slow, and I was thinking about moving forward, when suddenly a guy to my left initiated a nice move up the left side of the bunch. Jumping quickly and quietly onto his wheel, I let him tow me all the way up to the lead at a nice brisk pace. But as we reached the front end, he started slowing and moving to the right, apparently to slot himself in at the head of the main group.
As he started to slot in to my right, I was still accelerating, and went smartly past him on the left, and into the lead.
I hadn't planned it beforehand, but finding myself suddenly in the lead, 200 meters before the right-hand turn onto the 4-mile long downhill, I made a split second decision to attack. I wanted to be ahead of the pack on the downhill anyway, so I got low and aero on the bike, and rode hard for the corner.
Around the corner, I glanced back and saw that I'd opened a nice little gap, so I decided to hammer the downhill and see what I could do with it. I mean…it's just a bicycle race…how hard can it be, right? [I was to find out, in due course.]
As I pushed on the downhill, following the lead motorcycle down the canyon, I calculated that:
- As a decent descender and time trialer, the terrain ahead suited me.
- It would be to my advantage to get to the climbs first, so I wouldn't get shelled off by the faster climbers.
- If I wanted to be more aggressive, ala Gina's recent race reports, here was my chance.
- It would be fun to see how long I could hold a solo breakaway.
- And when/if caught, I'd have a fast group to draft (assuming I could hang on).
Oh, and of course, to get maximum television exposure for my sponsors (plus several 500 € primes on offer along the parcours).
Having jumped off the front within moments of the race director dropping the white flag at the end of the opening neutral section, mine was now the only jersey getting media coverage at the head of the race. With the TV moto just ahead of me, the roadside crowds cheering, and the helicopters whirring back and forth overhead...
Oh, wait…wrong race…sorry.
I was getting Saturday's district race mixed up with my race from 3 am last Friday night (…in my dream my attack was successful, as I held off the hard-charging peloton for a scant 1 meter advantage at the line, for the stage win).
Bottom line (back in the real world): there was no downside risk to my attack, other than the dog wandering in the road that I passed at 40 mph (except that I wish I had had the foresight to plan my move in advance, and tell my teammate Keith that I was going to attack 2 km into the race!…sorry, Keith!).
At the bottom of the long downhill, I looked back and saw that my lead was now substantial - I was about 700 meters ahead of the pack...unbelievable. With only the course referee on a motorcycle ahead of me for company (my TV moto), I went into time trial mode at a hard, but not unsustainable pace. That allowed me to tackle the two climbs alone, at my own pace.
By the finish line of the first lap, my lead had shrunk to about 200 meters, but I kept pressing on because I again wanted to get first to the long downhill, and the hills beyond.
I was first onto the 2nd downhill section, when sadly, but inevitably, a group of about 15 riders caught me about 15.5 miles into the race.
I hung tough on the two climbs on the 2nd lap. But on lap 3, the pace hotted up on both climbs and I lost contact with the group on the 2nd climb. I still felt fairly strong coming over the top, but by then the group was about 250 meters up the road. Fortunately, I went by a cyclist on a different team who I've chatted with at a couple of races, and he jumped on my wheel. We worked well together, and caught back up to the group after a 3 or 4 minute chase, where we tried to catch our breath and recover at the back.
But then…the 4th lap…sigh.
On the first climb on that lap, the pace went sky high, and I drifted back…and back…and back…until I was off the back (along with a few others). After a mile of chasing, I managed to claw my way back to the group, just as they reached the base of the last hill. Tragically, that was a "hill too far" for me, because the hammer went down again, and I was blown off the back…this time for good, about 3 miles from the finish.
As I drifted off the back, way over my limits and completely fried, I heard the unmistakable British accent of race announcer Phil Liggett. It was coming from a TV tuned in to the race, in one of the team cars that was being moved up as I went backwards. The live coverage was a few seconds delayed, but before he was drowned out by the helicopters, I clearly heard Phil saying, "He's cracked…oh, yes, he's surely cracked now, like a desiccated leaf being run over by a Formula 1 racing car. And what a pity after such a brave solo breakaway…".
Ooops…wrong race again…sorry.
In the last hundred meters before the crest of the last hill, I passed several other riders who had also cracked. Coming over the top, I drove hard on the following downhill, and then time trialed the long gentle climb back to the finish.
The main group was about 250 meters ahead of me as they approached the finish line. Apparently, there was a spirited sprint for the win, with one rider being disqualified for a center line violation (I heard he was 2nd or 3rd across the line…ouch!).
But, that was them, and their race. As for me, I pushed on solo, as hard as I could to the finish. Three or four riders had closed to within 100 meters of me, and I didn't know which group they were in, so I had to keep the gas on all the way to the line.
Finally rolling across the finish, I had a big grin on my face. Despite the mid-pack finish, this race was a ton of fun, and helps to answer that existential question of "If you're unlikely to win, why do you compete?"
After the long drive home, I spent the rest of the evening watching the coverage of Saturday morning's penultimate stage of the Tour de France (watching it twice actually…I'm such a fan boy), cheering Lance and the other riders up the mighty Mont Ventoux, drinking a few post-race beers (for recovery…really), and penning this missive between commercials. I hope you've enjoyed it (as you can perhaps tell, I've enjoyed writing it).
And finally, a special thanks to my teammates:
Gina - for the aggressive inspiration.
Wayne – for team support and snagging my water bottles in the feed zone.
John - for his rig, all the driving and encouragement, showing us the course, and (not least) putting up with my snoring.
Keith – for his support and sportsmanship (and for not rabbit punching me after the race, for me for not telling him I was going to attack!).
Don't you just love the month of July?