I’ve been waiting a long time to write this report. Candidly, most of my race reports are missives on what not to do: mistakes I have made, lessons learned, or epic tales of heroism that ended--like the greatest of classic tragedies--with our hero falling short and the resulting catharsis blah blah blah something, something AP English…
Spoiler alert: this is not one of those tragic tales.
I’ve done the La Crosse Omnium the last two years in a row and I cannot say enough good things about this race. It is located in the “Driftless” region of the upper midwest--an area carved out by glaciers and the Mississippi river. It is challenging, it is well run and it is very accessible to us Chicago folks, being only 4 hours away. It kicks off with a hill climb time trial on Friday evening, a road race on Saturday and a criterium in downtown La Crosse on Sunday. I had been talking this up for months now and was lucky enough to rally a formidable team around me to race the Masters 35+ Cat 3/4 field. Myself, Tracy Dangott, Michael Kirby & Matt Grosspietsch would do the entire Omnium. Kevin Corcoran couldn’t make the Friday night TT (something about having a “job”) but would join us for the RR & crit. I was not shy about assuming the role of team leader for this race. I had raced it before. I had played a supportive role in helping Rob Whittier take 2nd overall in 2015. I knew the courses and I felt it set up well for me. The week prior we sent rounds of emails out discussing possible strategies, outcomes and contingencies. Self confidence has always been a weakness of mine but I did my best to push aside any negative feelings. “I can podium in this,” I said, trying bolster my resolve with my own words.
Act I: Grandad Bluff TT.
It all begins with the TT. 2.5 miles almost all uphill. If I don’t have a good result here then all the strategy and tactics don’t amount to squat. This is on me and I either bring my A game or we regroup to talk about individual stage wins.
I brought my A game.
I don’t have a huge TT engine but it’s good enough. And while my 5’8” frame has disappointed me at many a rock concert, it sure helps my power to weight ratio. I pre-rode the course to remind myself where I wanted to shift to the big ring as it flattens out near the top. While warming up I was blabbering on about what tire pressure to run and Kirby--for the first of many times throughout the weekend--offered me some sage advice: “get out of your head.” Yeah. Damn straight. Don’t think. Just pedal. 5-4-3-2-1 off! For the next 9’23” I buried myself--improving on my time from last year by 10 seconds. When the dust settled I was 3rd and elated to be on the podium. I had tackled job #1 and now it was on to the road race which I figured would be where I would shine.
Act II: Road Race.
I’ve put a lot of training in over the last few months and, honestly, a 40 mile road race seemed almost too easy. The profile is simple enough: 3 laps with a decisive climb each lap. I had enough experience to know the power I needed to put out for the climb and was familiar enough with the Masters 34 field to know they wouldn’t hit it that hard. Or so I thought. There are always cross winds up here but this year they came from the north instead of typical westerly winds. The field was also really frisky. Neutral roll out? Hardly. We were racing from the first clip in.
The plan was to keep a hard tempo for the first two laps and look for a winning selection to be made at the top of the hill on lap 3. I would keep myself safe in the pack until that moment and then make sure I was with the leaders. Unfortunately the “plan” didn’t involve crosswinds shredding the field by mile 2 including, unfortunately, Matt G who nonetheless rode out the full 3 laps. Echelons all over the place, guys getting guttered and then spit out the back. When we hit the first climb I was caught out of position and a little out of breath. A gap opened up and I watched my dreams crest the top of the hill with a lead group I couldn’t connect with. Fortunately Kevin and Tracy did connect with that group and realized I wasn’t there. Tracy dropped back to assist me as I had hooked up with a group of 6 other chasers. The next 90 minutes were some of the hardest I’ve spent on a bike. We chased hard but there was almost nowhere to really recover. Anyone not paying attention to the winds could find themselves kicked out the back. Some surges happened on the hill but basically the group stayed together. Given the nature of the chase I didn’t really have the luxury of sitting in but Tracy was especially vigilant of where I was and what I was doing. He was always there to lend a wheel, pace me and otherwise keep me protected as best he could. As we resigned ourselves that the leaders were away for good we set up for the sprint and I parked myself on Tracy’s wheel. You would think that 8 riders on a full lane of road would have plenty of room to maneuver but the crosswinds had us bunched up on the far right side of the road. With the finish line in sight I was boxed in but I just stayed calm and put my faith in Tracy. I knew if there was a way through the mess of riders he would find it and he did. At 200m he had cleared a lane for us by 100m I had jumped clear of any other opponents. I opted to not kick and come around Tracy because 1) he had done a ton of work and he deserved to cross the line first and 2) I thought there were only 2 or 3 riders up the road. This was a mistake as I soon learned there were 6 in the lead group. It was quite possibly the hardest race I have done but when it all shook out I was off the podium, sitting in 5th. It was a disappointing day but I took solace that only 8 points separated me from #2.
We spent the rest of the day eating dinner (Sushi Pirate!) and while relaxing in our B&B and I stalked my competition online relentlessly. I looked up their numbers and decided that none of them were particularly dominant crit racers. The problem was, neither am I, by all accounts. I have had a couple podiums but I typically find myself out of position in the final laps and end of sprinting for 15th. That couldn’t happen this time. If it did I would be nowhere near the omnium. In discussing the math Kevin summed it up matter of factly: “you have to be on the podium.” On another day I would have resigned myself to failure--told myself it was OK and that a top 5 omnium finish was something to be proud of. Not on this day. Not on your life.
Act III: The Crit.
The plan was simple: mark the overall GC guys 2, 3, 4 & 6 (who was a few points behind me.) They could not get away in a break. Tracy and Kevin would monitor them and chase them down as needed. If the overall leader tried for a break I would go with him on the assumption we could work together (I wasn’t realistically a threat to beat him.) In Kirby’s words: “let 2, 3 & 4 worry about #1. You worry about knocking off 2, 3 & 4.” Kirby would shepherd me through the early part of the race, keeping me safe, keeping tabs on the competition and, when the time came, move me into position in the final laps. With two to go Kevin would pick up tempo at the front and I would park myself on Tracy’s wheel and not let go.
I’ll be damned if that’s not the way it went down.
Kirby got into an early break that allowed us to just sit in an rest. When that came back the GC guys attacked but got nowhere thanks to Kevin & Tracy’s vigilance. A late race prime was called and I went with the group contending to see which of the GC guys had a good sprint. Only one of them did but I knew I could beat him in a drag race. With 4 to go Kirby appears next to me and says “let’s go,” then pulls me right up to the front. As we hit the backside of the course on the bell lap Tracy was on front, me second wheel. “Green light” I yelled and he ramped it up. Into a headwind I was worried that we might get swarmed but not with the watts he was laying down. He OWNED that stretch of road. Turn three and I’m yelling “big dog”--the cue appropriated from the Elite team to empty the tank--and he did. Tracy set me up perfectly. I jumped at 200m and wound it up for a second place finish--narrowly getting pipped at the line by a non-GC contender. In hindsight if I had jumped just a bit earlier and wound up one more cog I think I would have held it for #1. I honestly think I had a little more in my legs. No matter. I did what I had set out to do. All that was left was the math.
After a few tense minutes the overall results came down: I had moved from 5th to 2nd in the GC, technically tied for points with #3 but my better TT placing (3rd to his 6th) gave me the edge. I was ecstatic. We had made a plan and executed it with focus every step of the way. When we needed to make adjustments we were able to do that. My wonderful teammates fulfilled their roles with grace--it was TRULY a team effort and a team win. For my part I conquered some personal demons. I can say with pride that I rose to the challenge I had set for myself and delivered for my team and my friends who put their faith in me. It was, by any measure, a great weekend in La Crosse.