Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Madera Stage Race 55+

After a couple of weeks with rain and clouds that are much needed in our area, I was happy to see the Saturday dawn of the Madera Stage Race begin with clear skies. I have always enjoyed this 3 part race, even though I crashed out in the crit in my first year and had to have my ear reconstructed. I was also excited to be heading down there with teammate, Jim Langley. The most fun I have experienced to date in bike racing has come in past Madera races working to help Jim get the win in the road race. We missed out on that last year because Jim is a cat 2 racer, and the race was designated as a 3/4 event in the 55+. This year was looking to be the same, but they opened it up to everyone in the last week of registration.

We drove down in Jim’s classic VW van, talking strategy and past successes and failures all the way. I had two bikes and Jim had 3. We arrived in plenty of time for the crit, got signed in, pinned our numbers and set up to warmup on our trainers. I used to always warmup on the road for races, but the combination of no good warmup area, flats before races and prerace routine issues have led me to prefer the trainer to the road. Plus, at the beginning of an event with 3 different races to do, simple spinning on the trainer just to warm the body up is better than unstructured road work. The challenging part of this prerace routine for me is getting my spare wheels over to the pit area. I spend too much time thinking about getting one of my spare wheels caught in the spokes of my bike as I roll over to the pit area with them. I expect that’s because, in the past, I have had a knack for boneheaded crashes.

Our race gets lined up at the start, and they send the 45+ 4/5 group off 30 seconds ahead of us. I have raced a lot with both the 55+ and the 45+ 4/5 groups and I thought this was surprising. I knew the 45+ 4/5 group would not race. In all cases, they ride through a course at just above a social pace and then sprint at the finish. The 55+ group likes to race. You can expect pretty much constant attacks and attempts at breaks that keep the pace high throughout. This is much preferred for me. I had no doubt that we would catch the 45+ group. We did catch and pass them on our 2nd or 3rd lap. In retrospect, this may have been the smart way to do it because otherwise we may have gotten mixed up with them at the finish. At any rate, our race was an attacking one, but team Spokesman’s strategy was to sit in with the group and let the bigger teams do the chasing. At one point, a three man break got established that included Dave Montgomery (last year’s silver medalist in the 55+ national TT), Greg Boella (a very strong crit rider) and another guy I couldn’t identify. These three held the lead for 2 or three laps and I think Montgomery got a 5 second bonus for a preme lap, but in the end, the teams did in fact chase them down. Our race was scheduled for 50 minutes, but the officials decided to reduce our time in the midst of the race. All of a sudden, our lap card went from 7 to go on one lap to 3 to go on the next. More than a bit confusing, but at least our group was coming back together with 2 1/2 laps to go. I was feeling pretty good, and I think Jim was doing okay as well. We had not done any work, but had only done what was necessary to stay with the group. From the point when the group came back together, we began to pay closer attention. We both made sure to go with any moves and as such, we stayed towards the front of the pack. On the backside of the course on the final lap, I went with a move that included maybe 3 other riders. It was a short hard effort, led out by Joe Lemire, last year’s district road race champion. I hadn’t had to do much to stay on the back of the move, so I was a bit surprised when they pulled off so soon. I knew it was a long way to the line, but I figured, “Why not give it a go?” So I did. I jumped hard as I found myself alone on the right hand side of the road. Guys in the group on the left hand side were whistling and yelling at the group to come get me. Just as I was clearing the front of the group, I heard a crash and looked back at the group hoping it wasn’t Jim. I saw one guy going over his bars as another was already down, but I didn’t see the blue and orange colors of Spokesman. I pushed on through the 3rd corner before I looked back and saw that I had a 3 - 5 second gap. The group looked like a nest of hornets that had been hit and I could see them chasing furiously. I buried myself and went hard for the last corner hoping to have something left for the finishing straight. Although I went through the final corner alone, riders were charging and I was running out of gas. I dug deep and hard but got passed by 4 guys on the way to the line. I got 5th in the crit. Although my move had not worked (in this stage race, there are only time bonuses for the top 3), I still felt like it had been worth it to try. Jim finished with the pack in 13th. One guy had crashed out of the race, and Kevin Willits had also crashed, but finished. He was given the same time as the pack. We signed out of the race, ate some lunch, got some gas, checked in at the hotel, set up our TT bikes, rested a bit, and headed out to the TT course.

I was particularly excited about this TT. Spokesman had set me up with a new Cervelo P3 TT bike in November. I have never raced on a TT bike and I was looking forward to the experience. The parking area had many goathead thorns, and we had to be very careful not to let them get into our tires. I had planned to warm up on my trainer, but Jim advised me that the rear facing dropouts on the P3 could make that dicey unless I had a special skewer on the rear wheel. Having no such piece, I was fine warming up on the road. I don’t have a lot of TT experience, but I keep finding myself interested in the skill. From equipment, body mechanics and positioning to pacing, power output and speed, the whole thing continues to be an area where I can tell I have a lot to learn, but I am still at the stage where I am trying to find the right path. As I warmed up, I could tell that my heart rate monitor was not working right. I was simply spinning down the road, and my HR was running in high zone 3 to low zone 4. My coach has told me to ignore this information during races, but I was really hoping to use HR information to keep myself from going out too hard. It looked like perceived exertion was going to be my only measuring stick. I felt like I had a perfect start time for the TT. Jim was going off 90 seconds ahead of me, followed 30 seconds later by Joe Lemire. My 30 second man was a guy I don’t know by name, but I had raced with him before and knew I could catch him. 30 seconds behind me was Dave Montgomery, last year’s 55+ silver medalist in the TT. 90 seconds behind me was Robert Naperalski, last year’s race winner, and the guy Montgomery had told me he was most worried about. My feeling was that if Dave went by me, I could use that as motivation to lift my pace and improve. I also knew that Dave would be using me as a rabbit to lift his pace. If my race wasn’t going well, I thought I could use Naperalski in the same way.

The TT didn’t turn out as planned. Jim went off and I cheered him out of the gate. I felt as ready as I could be when my turn came up and I was off. The day was close to windless, which is unusual for this course, but I felt like I built up a pretty good pace on the outbound leg. I could see that I was making up some ground on my 30 second man, but I resisted the urge to look back for Montgomery. I can’t say I was surprised that he passed me, but boy did he come by fast and before I even got to the first corner. My speed had been running just under 25 mph. When I lifted my effort to match Dave, I was running 26 mph. I couldn’t begin to hold that level, and he was soon gone. I went through the first turn with my 30 second man well within reach, but Dave was up the road. The second leg of this race is normally a big tailwind section, but on this day it was about the same pace as the outbound leg. I did pass my 30 second man and went through the second corner carefully. It’s an off camber corner, and I had nearly crashed there in the past. This time I took it too carefully and lost some momentum going into the slight uphill that follows. Naperalski went by me shortly after that corner, and I rededicated myself to not getting completely ruined by this TT. I felt like I rode better from this point on to the finish. I kept Naperalski in sight, I passed one more guy just on the finishing straight, and I was completely gassed at the line. That said, I knew I had not had a great TT, and I was unlikely to be near the top of the standings. True that. I was in 10th out of maybe 23 guys, but we couldn’t know that. More about that in a moment. Jim was just ahead of me in 9th, having done a really strong ride for a guy who hadn’t been on his TT bike since the Nationals. The top 5 guys were Naperalski, Montgomery 20 seconds behind, a smaller rider from So Cal who was using this race to get ready for San Dimas, Kevin Willits from the same team as Montgomery, and Joe Lemire. Last year, I had finished just a few seconds behind Willits and ahead of Montgomery. I was disappointed, but some input from Jim and Dave helped me to recognize that I have a lot of room to improve with my new bike.

Jim and I joined some of the others for a post race rehash before cooling down. We loaded up the van, headed back into town and had dinner at a place called Cool Hand Lukes, kind of a chain type steak house. It was pretty good and right across the street from our hotel. Throughout the evening and following morning, we searched online for race results, to no avail. Velo Promo simply doesn’t think it important to have accurate and timely results. I feel they are almost single handedly responsible for the drop off in race registrations that I have observed over the last few years. Perhaps they have made it up by an observable and welcome increase in women’s race registrations, but I would expect to see the same kind of drop there when the women realize that this promotor places little to no value on results, and they do not award the prizes that they claim to at registration. A couple of years ago, I wrote a letter about this to NCNCA and USA Cycling. Last year was run far more professionally, but this year they are back to the same old same old. A few years ago, Jim won this race, but he had to hang around until almost dark to get the results to confirm his placing. It is truly unfortunate that this longtime promotor, with many of the best race venues, is so uncaring about the effects of his race management on our sport. Jim indicated to me on the way home that this was probably his last Madera Stage Race because of the way it is run. I will probably return because it is such a fun race, but I expect many others will follow Jim’s path.

Anyway, after dinner, we returned to the Super 8 hotel and made sure we were ready for the next day’s road race. With no results available, we didn’t know our placing and couldn’t really strategize for the road race, but our plan was to sit in and see how things developed on the first lap of our 3 lap race. Then we planned to employ the tactic that has served us well in the past. That tactic was based on the concept that we felt we probably had better fitness than most of the other guys in the race. We would take turns attacking the group beginning with the second lap, and try to stay away as long as possible, making the race leader do the work to chase us down. Our goal was to try and get a win in the road race, and possibly improve our position in the General Classification. Plus, both of us were interested in racing, rather than sitting in. After making our plan, we settled in to the last available room in Madera, a small one filled with race bikes and two old guys sharing a queen sized bed. We put up with a lot for the love of our sport.

Race day came early as the time sprang forward an hour for daylight savings. Our 5 am wakeup was really 4 am to our bodies, so we relished the coffee from the Chevron that was the only place open at that time of the morning. We loaded up the van and headed out to the Lazy E Ranch at Hensley Lake, the headquarters for the road race. Jim wanted to get there early, to get a good parking spot and avoid having to pack our bikes through a field. At 6:15 am, we arrived at about the same time as the promotor and were parked right at the front, in perfect position. We checked in at race central for results, but none were available for our race, so we talked to others from our race, got dressed, and warmed up on the trainers. Several people approached us to try and form strategies, but we felt we would be better to stick with our own plan. Finally, about 1/2 hour before our race was to start, we got GC results. Jim and I were only a few seconds apart, but we were almost 2 minutes back on the leader. Our strategy would still be to see if we felt good enough to try and win the road race. We knew it was unlikely that we would be able to make up that kind of time gap.

The first lap of this race went as expected. There were a few attacks, but it was clear that this field of older racers was a bit tired. For my part, I was feeling pretty good. When we made the turn to start our second lap, I knew I wanted to try and make something happen. As the route turned slightly up hill, I jumped hard and launched off the front. I have attacked on this section in the past, and it normally goes into a bit of a headwind. This race day, the wind was reversed and I found myself flying up the slight gradient. I looked back after a minute or so and I had a pretty good gap on the field. I settled in and just started working. A few minutes later, I looked back and saw a teammate of Montgomery and Willits bridging up. I thought about trying to leave him, but I wanted someone to work with me, and I thought his team would be glad to let him go with me to try and get the win. Turns out I was wrong. He refused to work and just sat on me. Soon another guy bridged up. He was Allen, and I knew him from having the same coach a few years ago. Allen began to take pulls and was interested in establishing the break. I was trying to consider how this could happen with Tracy just sitting on. So, I just let Allen go. He got a gap on us and I sat on Tracy until he decided he had to close the gap. As he pulled us onto Allen’s wheel, I came around and told Allen to make Tracy pull him up to me. My thought was that eventually, Tracy would either get dropped trying to match the work of the two of us, or he would decide to start working with us. I got a gap and it was building, but I knew Tracy would decide to close it soon. Allen couldn’t wait and he pulled Tracy up. At that point, I realized that this break couldn’t work and I just sat up and waited for the pack. They pulled up to us and Jim attacked and got a good gap. This was the move we have used twice before to get Jim the win in the road race. This time it didn’t work. Jim’s hamstring was giving him some noise and he realized he would have to back off or risk further injury. On top of that, the pack was failing to race smart. I was sitting in, hoping to see the race leaders struggling to chase Jim down. Instead, different lower placed riders kept going to the front and doing the chasing. The race leaders didn’t have to work at all. I rode up to the front and asked the guy chasing if he wouldn’t rather have the race leaders doing the chase work. He agreed and began to soft pedal, but then another low placed rider took up the chase. I couldn’t figure it out. I asked the guy who I had talked out of chasing if he knew who the race leaders were. When he admitted he did not, I pointed out Naperalski first and then the 3rd placed rider who had been sitting on his wheel throughout his chase. The guy in 3rd started laughing. At this point, I realized that our plan was futile and that our best hope was probably just to sit in and try to get the best finish we could manage in the road race. Before long, Jim was back in the group, and we were heading for the last lap of the race. Other racers continued to attack, but most of the chasing was done by lower placed independent riders. The one momentous event was that the guy in 3rd flatted as we were coming through the rough pavement sections before the last lap. He never got back on, so most everyone moved up a spot in the GC. As we went through the rough pavement for the last time, the group was chasing down another guy off the front. I asked Jim if he would like me to attack the group when we brought the break back. While I didn’t completely understand his response, it seemed clear that he was not going to try and win this day. I felt that my best chance would be to sit in and save my energy for the lumpy sections leading to the finish. I knew from the first two laps that of the 4 humps, the first 2 would determine my fate. If I could stay with the leaders through those first 2 hills, the last two were not long enough to get me dropped. I also knew that even if Jim was not feeling his best, he was still the best climber in our race. I expected him to attack on the hills and try and establish a gap. That is indeed what happened. I was positioned along Jim’s general line so I could continue to follow the wheels chasing him. I got over those first two hills as the last member of the lead group. There were maybe 10 - 12 of us, but Jim was pretty gassed at that point. I think I made the mistake of continuing to try and conserve energy, because I was still somewhat intimidated by the last two hills leading to the finish. Those are power hills, and I may have been the most powerful rider left in the group. Still I let them intimidate me and just moved up a few spots in the group going over the first one. As we approached the final hill, Joe Lemire launched his sprint and I went on his wheel. The problem was that everyone else was doing the same thing. Joe and I passed a few guys, but there was too much room to make up before the line. I was 6th over the line and happy to be there. I might have done better attacking earlier, but I also might have blown up and finished worse. Jim had burned his matches and that attack allowed me to finish as high as I did. I believe he got over the line with the same time as the rest of the lead group, so we expect that we maintained our position in the overall standings. Still, an hour later, we had returned to the car and packed up our race gear. We were ready to leave and I checked in at race central for results. None were available, and I overheard the comment from one of the race staff that it was likely to be some time. Jim & I knew we had not won the race or placed on the podium. We would have liked to have our results, but we also were ready to get home. We left, and at the time of this report’s writing, results are still not available online.

Madera Stage Race is a really fun race. I have no doubt I will race it again with hopes of doing better. It’s unfortunate the race is run in such a way as to discourage racers from entering. I expect I will miss having the opportunity to race with Jim Langley, one of the nicest guys in our sport, at this event!

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