Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chico Stage Race 55+

I have thought about doing the Chico Stage Race for a couple of years, but the way it falls on the race calendar and one aspect of the road race course have always given me pause. This year, it fell in a good spot on the calendar for me, and I’m getting more into stage racing, having gotten a time trial bike this year. I had signed up a few weeks prior and made a reservation in Chico for a room on Saturday night. The week of the race, I was checking out my start time and then checking out the distance to the race, and I realized that I would need to head up there on Friday. The drive was close to 5 hours, and my road race started at 10:30 in the morning. With my waking routine, packing the car, driving and getting to the race enough before race time, I would have to get up around 2 - 2:30 in the morning on Saturday to get there in time from Watsonville. Plus, I figured I would be beat from all of the travel, effort and missed sleep. I added another night to my hotel and invited my stage race support crew to go with me. Wife, Julie, and dog, Tag, rearranged their schedules and joined me on my journey.

We chose to take the less direct route, taking San Juan Rd to Hwy 101 to Hwy 152 to I-5. Google maps called for us to go up through the bay area, but leaving at 3:20 pm on Friday, coupled with past experiences on Friday afternoon bay area freeways, led us to the I-5 route. It was longer in distance, but traffic flowed freely the whole way. The radio informed us repeatedly of tie ups and delays on the bay area roads. We got into Chico right around 8 and got checked into the Quality Inn downtown. On the advice of the hotel desk, we walked to dinner at a very good Italian restaurant (the Sicilian Inn). Tag stayed to settle in at the room and keep an eye on my race gear. On returning to the room, I checked on the next day’s race. The course was a further hour and 10 minutes away from Chico, a bit of a surprise. We made our plans and turned in.

We left with plenty of time on Saturday and were among the early arrivals at the race site. I set up my trainer to warm up, but I had sort of decided to do most of my warm up on the course. I maybe did 15 minutes of light spinning, got signed in for the race and spoke to a number of guys in my field. There were 4 teams with at least 3 riders in my field and I was on my own. I knew I would need to stay alert, because if I got caught off guard, I wouldn’t have any teammates to help me get back into the race. One of the represented teams is a new one, “3Ft - It’s the Law”. I think they only have 5 members total, but they are all cat 3 or better racers in the 55+ age group. I know there are other strong 55+ masters race teams from past Northern California race seasons, but this year, these guys are the class of our field. They can all sprint, they can all time trial, they are smart crit and road racers, and they make and execute a strategy going into each race. Plus, they race every week as a team. At Chico, they lined up with Kevin Willits (I think he may be a former pro and their chief strategist), Dave Montgomery (last year’s silver medalist in the 55 - 59 national TT, and an overall smart racer), Jonathon Laine (this was my first time racing with this very strong racer), and Doug Gonda (a very good sprinter and strong racer). My plan going into the road race as a sole independent racer, was to try and mark Willits and Montgomery. I figured that those two would be where the action was, and if I stuck with them, I would be there too.

The road race had one other component that had me feeling unsure. It was about a 45 mile race, but there is a 4.5 mile section that is gravel. That section comes about 7 miles before the finish, and I suspected that it might cause me some difficulty. I don’t have a mountain bike background, and the only time I remember going through any gravel, I got dropped by the Saturday ride guys I was with. Still, I figured I would just do my best and see how things worked out. Besides, I knew I wasn’t the only one who had some concern about the gravel section.

We lined up for our race and I was planning on warming up and using the first part to get settled. Even though guys have tried early breakaways in my prior races this year, none of those breaks were able to stick because everyone was too fresh. I expected more of the same here, but it turns out I was wrong. About 8 minutes into our race, 3 of the 4 -3Ft guys went to the front and began to echelon into the crosswind. There are probably a total of 8 guys working to establish the gap that is opening between them and the rest of our field. At the moment I see the gap, it is already 20 - 25 yards and opening. The guy I’m sitting on doesn’t seem to have any interest in closing. Although my first mistake was to not get properly warmed up for this race, here is where I made my second and most costly mistake. Rather than wait for a wheel to grab and pull me part of the way to the lead group, I took off on my own and chased. Diesel that I am, I succeeded in pulling most of the group with me about halfway across the gap before I realized that my lack of preparation along with the intensity of the effort were gassing me. That’s when the last 3Ft guy along with one or two others launched bridging efforts that got them onto the lead group. I knew my race was going up the road, but I did not have the energy to make the bridge. I had to recover a bit and eventually found myself with 10 - 12 guys who, like me, had missed the break. As I recovered, I committed myself to chasing. The difficulty was that the group I was with did not have the necessary skill sets to put on an effective chase. I appeared to be the strongest, but beyond that, at least one racer did not understand that we had to use the wind to our best advantage. Our race continued to move up the road. From time to time, we came up on others who had been dropped by the leaders, and we dropped guys from our group who were unable to maintain our chase pace. For a number of miles, Dirk Himley rode along with our group, as he was doing a warmup lap for his later race. He didn’t assist our chase, but he made some suggestions for how to think about a chase such as ours. For my part, I appreciated hearing how he thinks about such situations, but I was becoming increasingly blown from the efforts I was making in the chase. We managed to keep our lead group in sight until we got to the gravel section, but that’s where my next difficulty in this race appeared.

By the time we got to the gravel section, I was riding with Boyd Tarin and Erik Salander, both good racers. For several miles, I had quit taking pulls because my energy was too low. When we came to the gravel, I recommitted myself to pedaling consistently. The section starts with a short hill and rolls on from there. By the time I crested that first rise, I was gapped significantly by the other two. Any time I tried to come up out of the saddle, I found myself fishtailing in the gravel. I had to stay seated, but I couldn’t close any gaps from there. Even though I kept working as hard as I could, the gap grew and I was dropped. I was breathing in a substantial amount of gravel dust and that only increased when a couple of pickups hauling trailers came flying by. I kept working and finally got through the gravel section. Not long after, the finish approached. The two guys I had entered the gravel with were gone, but none of the others from my group had caught me. When I crossed the line in this first part of a three part timed race, I was over six minutes behind the leader (Jonathon Laine of 3Ft), and I had lost 3 minutes to the two guys I had entered the gravel with. On top of this, I had chased as hard as I can recall for virtually the entire race. Of 23 in my race, I was 14th. I was not too pleased with myself.

It turned out that guys who had done this race before knew that the crosswinds in the outbound leg were often the critical point. I think all of the morning races were much the same as ours. Course knowledge can be key. I packed up and Julie, Tag and I headed back to Chico, committed to race smarter and better the next day. We enjoyed dinner Saturday night with Matthew Sloan, who had placed 5th in the 35+ cat 4 race.

Sunday morning I was determined to be warm and ready for both of my races. Our crit was scheduled to go off at 8:35, and at only 30 minutes, I expected the pace to remain high. True that. I think our field split in the first lap, and those dropped never got back on. I was able to stay with the front group, but my legs had no snap. I was feeling the effects of the work I had done the day before. At no point in the race did I feel the need to go to the front for an attack. That’s really not like me. Then, on the next to last lap, the group was chasing after a Penn Velo rider who was off the front. As he entered the first corner after the start / finish line, he caught his pedal on the asphalt and went down on the pavement. The whole field was disrupted as we all endeavored to avoid the crash. As I got through, I observed another rider going directly over the downed rider and his frame. Amazingly, he made it over upright and was able to continue on. At least one or two other guys were not so lucky and went down. I think everyone who remained upright stayed with the group even though it took an effort. The crash seemed to take a lot of the steam out of the usual final moment energy of our race. There was a sprint for the line, but not the usual attacks that lead up to it. For my part, I was happy to have finished upright and in the front group.

Julie, Tag & I got checked out of our hotel and located the time trial site. Then we found a dog friendly restaurant for breakfast. I set up my trainer and warmed up for the TT while Julie ordered on the patio. After eating half of my breakfast burrito, I headed out to the TT site, while Julie and Tag headed back into downtown to watch more crit action. The TT was advertised as a flat and fast 10 miler. I was hoping to improve on my performance at Madera, where I finished 11th. I’m still learning about my new bike and had made a couple of adjustments to my position. It felt better, but I continue to feel that I am still not in a position that allows me to consistently produce the power of which I am capable. My 30 second man (that’s the guy who starts 30 seconds ahead of me in this individual timed event) was on a road bike. His 30 second man had crashed out of the race in the crit. I think the guy behind me had crashed out as well and I did not see any of the favorites starting close enough behind me that I was likely to be caught from behind. I just committed to not going out too hard and to doing my best. I knew I would be going out into a headwind, but I was hoping to get a good pace going nonetheless. The course was such that even with the headwind, I found myself going in excess of 26 mph. My HR was up around 135 bpm almost immediately and I began to settle in to my work. I built my pace and found that I could get my speed up to the 28 mph range, but when I did so, my HR was going over 148 and I was in danger of blowing up. My thought was that this was the speed that Dave Montgomery would be going the entire race, but I knew I couldn’t maintain it. I backed off to the 145 bpm range and tried to stay as low as possible on my bike. As I made the first of two right hand turns, the headwind seemed to increase and I found my speed dropping to the 25 mph range. Finally I got to the second right hander and picked up a tailwind. That’s where the road tilted uphill a bit. Oh well, I just kept trying to increase my effort to the line. I crossed the line at 23”43’, and I felt I had given my best effort, particularly considering how much the prior two events had taken out of me. I was 6th in the TT, and although Montgomery had me beat by 1”37’, I was only 30’ behind the 2nd place rider. Given the way this stage race had started, I was very pleased with the way it ended. 13th overall.

Julie, Tag & I checked into the results and congratulated my competitors. Then we watched a bit of the Pro 1/2 crit before hitting the road for the long drive home. That drive became a bit longer when we opted to try the bay area route home. We had to sit on I-80 for an extra hour in traffic, and that was no fun when we all were ready to be home. Still, overall, the weekend was a fun time, and I was really happy to have Julie and Tag there with me!

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