Attack and Release* (The Fool on the Hill**)
March 12th was a tough, tough day for me. That wasn't the day I hit the deck on the Cuesta grade at 40+mph. It was the day I left SLO on a train to LA and my flight home with 10 hours alone to think about when I might be able to ride again. I'd only done one crit in my life and this was supposed to be my first season of racing. A well-meaning teammate has tried to cheer me up earlier saying - “Think positive, you can definitely make it back racing by cross season.” “No way”, I told myself, I’m gonna make it back for Galena…
The next few weeks were rough as I managed to get on the trainer a few times and then slowly but surely I was back up to my pre-SLO trainer routine. The broken wrist still hurt too much to hold on to a bar but the legs worked fine and a nasty Chicago spring and Netflix made the trainer tolerable. Shortly afterwards, three important things happened: 1) In late March, I watched Cancellara destroy Sagan on the Paterberg 2) In a momentary lapse of reason I decided that a good 2nd race back from a wrist fracture would be the Cone-Azalia gravel race and I eked out a 2nd 3) After a day on the Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier, I caught a terrible fever and woke up believing that I was a climber.
Fast forward to June 3rd – After the team meeting I chatted with Will Pankonin up about my plans for Galena. I explained that I'd never tried any sort of attack in any race but thanks to a decent May and Giro infused delusions of grandeur I explained that I was going to attack Pantani style at the base of the first big climb. “That’s pretty early”, he reminded me, “but if you do it, commit; do it all the way…”
The TT was a blur. Literally, I had one of Galena’s now famous gnats in my eye and it was watering for the entire course but when it was done and my little aerobar experiment was over I was in 5th place and that did nothing to temper my foolish bravado. The next morning I warmed up for a few laps with Jim Barclay, rode the short kicker at the start of the course. The climb was fine but then we turned back for the short descent the reality set in that I hadn’t been over 40mph on a downhill since…the Cuesta Grade. So with that pleasant thought and a half-baked plan (but a plan nonetheless) I headed to the start.
At the start, I recognized a few guys from Spider Monkey, The Bike Haven and Half Acre and it felt great to have Bob, Tiber, Kevin, and John near me. If I imploded, maybe one of these guys would take pity and nurse me home? We started off and rounded a few corners as we left Galena in the neutral roll out, nerves settled and then we turned left to climb the short hill and as I watched a few guys struggle with short 11%(?) pitch, I gained a little confidence that an attack on the hill might work. Commit, I reminded myself.
The next 20 minutes went by quickly as I stayed close to John Mitchell who was riding well near the middle-front of the pack. It was early and my experience in Cat 5 races (all 6 of them) had me confident that nobody would attack with any conviction so my strategy was to sit in and being safe. But then we hit the descent to the railroad tracks and a little hell broke loose, I heard squealing and screaming (and bullwhips cracking), smelled brake pads and saw a rider go off the road and I remembered in horror that I was in a Cat 5 race with some huge descents coming up. This only strengthened my resolve; get away from these guys before those descents, I’ll actually be safer too.
As we wound our way onto N Ford Rd, the pace slowed a little as the pack prepared for the first real ascent and, sitting about 7th wheel, I took a look back for John and Kevin who I’d seen a few minutes before, took a deep breath and thought one more time - commit, don’t stop, do it all the way from here till you finish or drop – and I went.
The next ten miles were unquestionably the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike. My attack on the 3 mile Ford Road climb felt good, I hadn’t looked back the entire time and when I crested the top, I had created enough of a gap where I couldn’t see the riders behind me so I looked ahead at the pace car and pictured Tracy Dangott grinning and laughing and though I never crushed the pedals on the downhill and peaked at about 44 mph, it all felt “right”. The next seven miles of down and up felt awesome, I know I was grinning from ear to ear even on the 2nd climb as I set a new power curve (as a caveat, it's a new Powertap;). I’d attacked for the first time in a bike race, it seemingly had worked, and I was riding Galena’s amazing hills without hesitation or fear.
At mile 21 reality set in as I approached the bridge and I realized that a rider had closed the gap, but just one. Did I have enough left to work with him to get the two of us to 1 and 2 on the podium? He shot by faster than I’d like to admit, I buckled down and surged up to him and we agreed that we’d try it. That worked for a few miles at which point he called out that we had three riders closing and that he thought we’d get caught so we softened up a bit and my wolfpack had become five. Five riders with nobody else in sight with about a mile left to Galena. In the end I couldn’t do much when we got into town, I was gassed and as we rounded the last little turn to the finish I couldn’t muster up much of a sprint but I knew I was going to get 5th place, my best finish in a field of this size. As far as I was concerned, the attack, my first, had done its job.
Confidence high, I went into next day’s Crit thinking that an Omnium podium was in reach with a top 10 finish and after hanging in mid-pack for most of the race I started to formulate a plan here too. “Tough to get around guys on that last turn”, I thought, “This thing will be won by positioning into the 3rd turn”. I can’t explain how much it helped to see our team at the Marshall stations, for some reason seeing Fay and Briney at #1 and #6 just made me feel like I had to step up. The pace picked up at the bell lap but it was nothing too brutal and I moved to take the inside line at turns 1 and 2 to position myself for a jump on the back straight. About halfway down the straight I was sitting 5th wheel in the pack and I knew it was time; I attacked (2nd time now) and I heard a yell behind me “he’s going”, “go, go, GO!” I came into the 3rd turn 1st in the group and got the line I wanted for the final turn. I came out of the apex and stood to mash as hard as I could and managed to skip my front wheel off the ground but with a big grin I refocused and drove as hard as I could to the finish to a 2nd in the sprint, 3rd overall and a 3rd in the omnium.
I can’t really sum up how much this weekend meant to me; with a little grit, some luck, and great teammates I got some confidence back and was able to salvage a decent first season of bike racing. I’ve got a few more road races on the calendar this summer and I’m sure that Cat 4 is going to be challenging and humbling and a lot like starting all over again. But, to be honest, I can’t wait…
*”Attack and Release” is the property of The Black Keys
** “The Fool on the Hill” is the property of The Beatles