Day 3: Road Race
The previous day was rough, and on paper today looked a lot easier. It was only 86 miles, compared to 110, the hills were much smaller, and I also knew the roads on this course from previous Joe Martin experiences. All in all, Dave and I decided people would try to get away in a mad dash to make a giant GC leap over riders in front of them, but certainly, as it had last year, would end in a bunch sprint. The course was just too fast, we’d figured. I was sitting happily in 4th on the GC, and felt content that today more than likely wouldn’t shuffle the classification too much, with one of the harder crits coming up the next day. What is it they say about the best laid schemes of mice and men?
Dave and I both felt bad while warming up at the start, which we’ve always talked about means good things, strangely. It’s counterintuitive, but generally those “I’ve got great legs today!” days are when you suffer for 40th place and can hardly get to the front of the pack, and the “Oh, man, I’m sore and my legs hurt and maybe we shouldn’t even race today I just want an ice cream” days are when you end up feeling pretty good and reeling off a top 10. I’m being earnest when I say I wanted to just go to the ice cream man we passed while warming up in the little neighborhood, and then maybe skip the whole bike racing thing.
Our host Kevin calls it the lollipop course, appropriately named because you go out on the lollipop’s stick, an eight-mile jaunt, make three loops on the 23-mile main part, and then return back. The figure it traces is a lolly. The start was comical, because it had been changed from the previous year, and then changed again last minute on Thursday. The neutral roll-out through town was hilariously confusing, and eventually after no less than six successive turns, we were out on the road we needed to be on. I turned to Dave and noticed we were pretty well at the back. We stayed there, slowly moving up, feeling no urgency, just keeping sheltered from the wind at all times. All the talk between us leading up to the race had been that we wouldn’t need to worry too much, everything would stay together, bunch sprint, don’t get gapped on the run-in, no flat tires, no whammies, no whammies, no whammies, STOP!
But riding in the back, we approached the first climb and I noticed a lot of the stronger riders -- a lot of the GC threats both above and just below me – riding near the front. It’s funny to look back on a race, and look back at what was the biggest decisive move of the race, and try to determine why I did what I did right then. “Bike sense”? Does that exist? I surely didn’t think what would happen was about to happen. I just reacted to what I saw near the front with a little bit of urgency, and with it being a false flat on the run-in to the major hill, and us having the whole width of the road, it was easy as pie moving up from 70th spot to 10th. So I did just that, nice and easy. Got near the front, saw Brian Jensen, 2nd on GC, most definitely an animator of races and one of my new favorite people to race against, jump at the base of the climb. Definitely not the hardest he would attack this day, but hard enough and early enough that a majority of racers did not want to match it. I waited for just a couple guys to jump behind me before I latched onto their wheels, rode to the top of the steep pitch, looked back, and realized we had a large break. When it finally fully formed after the next uphill, it was 12 guys strong. Jensen, me, three Tulsa Tough, two Mercy, a Hincapie Development, some others. I look around and quickly realize it’s essentially the entirety of the top 10 in the GC, all in the break. Which kind of makes sense, you’d think we’re the strongest, but it was almost like somehow no one missed out on this move. No one! Craziness. And it proved to be THE move. Only thing that would have made it better was having Dave up there with me.
No one worked well together for the next 30 miles, and we hovered at 45 seconds for far too long while people argued, yelled, looked at each other, sat up, half-attacked, looked around, waved arms and flailed for others to pull through, and on and on. But eventually Jensen, who was a) the oldest, b) the most experienced, and c) the strongest (easily) of everyone there took to ringleading. I was happy to contribute, assuming we’d make time and maybe we could drop one of the guys above me on GC. But Jensen surely wasn’t going to be dropped. And William Gault -- a Tulsa Tough guy who beat me in the time trial by nine seconds, got 2nd place in the prior day’s road race, led the GC and had two teammates here with him in the break -- literally didn’t see the front of the race at any point until there were 10k to go. It was bizarre and disruptive that he wasn’t even obliging us in a perfunctory pull-through, if only to not be so obnoxious. Alas, he had teammates, and it was his right to sit. I pulled through, always keeping an eye on Jensen knowing he would be the first guy to jump.
Two guys got off the front, including a Tulsa Tough who was not Gault and an unattached guy, both of whom I guessed were close enough behind me on GC to leapfrog me if they stayed away. We (by “we” I mean Jensen and Mercy, because I sure wasn’t going to do anything) let them go. A good while later, Jensen did indeed jump. This started a quick series of attacks and counterattacks. At one point he and I were dangling at the back together. He recognized that with my help we’d be strong enough to possibly drop some more of these guys, while knowing I was weak enough that he could still handedly beat me in the sprint. He asked if I felt good, then warned me I needed to be ready to jump. We then took off. Surely I’d have set some power records if I had a Powertap running then, just in attempting to stay on the dude’s wheel. But 30 seconds later it was all back together. Well, not ALL back together. I’m fairly sure that it was at this point, or perhaps shortly thereafter, that we dropped Zach Reed from Dogfish, who was one spot ahead of me on GC. I was very pleased. The small, six-man break, including No-Pull Gault who changed his style and began kinda sorta pulling through, buried it to try to reel those two guys in. I figured we were going so fast that we had caught them already or something, because after weakly taking 5th out of the six in our group, I didn’t realize two guys had already finished. So I was 7th on the day. On GC, I took one step forward in beating Zach Reed by a fair margin, but two steps back with these two out front leapfrogging me. So I now sat in 5th place. Another very, very hard road race stage. For me, everything had clicked. I lost a spot on the GC, and yet I was more pleased with myself and how I raced compared to any other road race I’ve ever done.
Dave rolled in with the group, suffering no more mishaps, and feeling good about being able to save some for the next day’s difficult criterium. I was quite pleased to have made the selection and known to position myself where I needed to be when the move went off. Now I just wanted to make it through the crit unscathed, and finish in at worst 5th place on GC, and feel that immense relief that comes with knowing two very hard, back-to-back stage races were over and done with.
Day 4: Criterium
This was about as uneventful as a crit can be. It was only 50 minutes, though “only” 50 minutes on this course is still brutal. Visit the website to see maps of this thing, and the elevation change on each lap. It’s one of the best criterium courses in the country, in my opinion, but I think the problem was that everyone was just too damn strong, especially in the eight-man team of Tulsa Tough. Nothing got off the front because those guys wouldn’t let anything go. The only hairy part came on two-to-go, when Jensen and a bunch of others took off, and I had to chase the gap myself. Unfortunately, as soon as I bridged, they all slowed up, the rest of the field caught back on, and we crested the hill to hear the bell lap. I held on for 14th place, the first guy in a very large group, including Dave, that was seven seconds back (yes, this course creates gaps). Losing those seven precious seconds luckily didn’t make a difference on GC for me, though Dave ended up moving up some. I finished 5th overall, and for the first time at Joe Martin could go home completely pleased with my performance and without any “woulda, shoulda, coulda”s as I’ve had in the past. Dave finished an extremely respectable 18th, well in the money, especially after both knowing he hadn’t trained as well as he would have liked in the off-season, and also almost getting dropped on day 2 after getting a flat and destroying himself to get back on.
All in all, a difficult but terribly fun race. We raced it about as well as a team of two can do (excepting Bill Stolte and Brian Jensen, those guys don’t count). So happy, so pleased to be racing well and have the support of a guy like Dave Moyer, seriously. My favorite moment of the weekend was at the end of day two’s road race, when Dave was slayed after chasing back from a puncture, probably begging for the race to be over, and the field was all together for the run-in to town, preparing to get their guys up front for the big uphill spring finish. Dave towed me to the front, and then suddenly we were at the front, and didn’t want to be there, so we slowed, got gobbled up and then spit out the back, basically. So right back to square one. But we were getting closer and closer to the first turn before the finish. So I just looked at Dave, and told him, “I’m going to need one more pull from you to get back to the front.” And then I had a guy of his caliber do exactly that for me, no questions asked, despite how empty his legs were at that point. That was really cool.
Immense, huge, massive, unwieldy thanks to Kevin and Pam, Arkansas' xXx Racing bureau chiefs. They continue to open up their home to us, and make it that much easier for us to race our bikes and not worry about the other stuff. You almost have to turn off a certain part of your brain to accept how far they'll go out of their way to help out.
And also, maddest of mad props to Jackie and Ed, my parents, who are now official soigneurs. Cooking, cleaning, laundering, working the feed zones... They did it all. So much fun to do this two-week trip, and it's even more fun when it's accompanied by good results! I can't speak for my dad and mom -- who, by the way, finally saw my first bicycle race victory out at Gila -- but standing on the Joe Martin podium in 5th place was the best Mother's Day I've ever had. Cheers.