One thing I've always liked about the Spring Prairie Road Race course is that, more than other races, it's a puzzle waiting to be solved. It's not a hammer fest. Strength alone won't win. You need the legs to hammer when you need to hammer, the patience to sit when you need to sit, and, most vexing of all, you need the wisdom to know the difference.
The dominant feature of course is the short wall of a climb leading into the start/finish, which you must crawl up every 6.5 miles. There usually aren't that many attacks. Instead, it's 15 minutes of recovery followed by 1 minute of fury, over and over.
I'd done this course five times before Sunday's 30+ race. Two things I've learned over the years:
1. It doesn't matter who gets up the hill first except for on the last lap. So, cool your jets. Early laps are good opportunity to "sag climb." Start the climb up front, but "sag" backward. You'll lose ground, but you'll keep contact with the group, and you won't trash your legs like everyone else. Save the all-out effort for when it counts. That said, one has to be aware that on any given trip up the climb, the field could detonate, and you need to sense it and be on the right side of the blast.
2. The climb is too short for a climber to assert his advantage. Thus, the true selections won't occur on the climb, but on the subsequent false flat and then the descent into Turn 1. It's on that stretch that the wolves will separate from the sheep. The key is saving enough gas to quickly and decisively go sur la plaque: Into the big ring, like it or not.
We would do seven laps. Cory from Scarletfire escaped early, and Steven from Comma/Van Wagner joined him on the second lap. The pack was content to let them dangle, and we cruised along at a gentlemen's pace. Myself, I stayed out of the wind, keeping tuned to opportunties to move forward in someone else's draft.
Heading into our third trip up the hill, I was a bit further back than I would have liked, but I still stayed cool on the climb. At the top, however, I could tell this was the decisive lap. A group of about 10 was well down the road. In between, scattered riders were pedaling squares. This was the move. I went sur la plaque, put my head down and set off in pursuit. Fortunately they were slow to organize, so I was able to make contact just after Turn 1. There were 12 of us, including three Comma/Van Wagner riders, as well as all the major Wisconsin teams.
Soon enough we were rotating evenly. The next trip up the climb, we were down to 10. This was good, but I didn't like my chances in a 10-man sprint, so I needed this group to come down even more.
With three to go, Kevin from Comma attacked at the base of the climb. Perfect. I followed him and by the time the dust settled, we had a group of five. This I could manage. Better yet, I was the only Illinois rider. In theory, if these guys had eyes on their state championship, they could let me go without consequence. This has worked to my favor once before.
We were still a group of five with one to go when my hamstrings started cramping. In this condition I knew I'd have only one chance to escape, so I'd better make it count.
I waited patiently, skipping pulls. After all, this wasn't my state championship. If they wanted the jersey, they'd have to work for it.
Finally with a half-mile to go, I made my move, timing it to when the strongest rider had taken a pull, then carefully letting a gap open up before accelerating up the other side of the road.
And it went nowhere. I felt like I was pedaling into a gale-force headwind. The legs just weren't there, and the Cheeseheads weren't letting me go so easily. Nuts.
So I settled into the back for a brief respite before the final sprint up the wall.
The final sprint here is always yet another puzzle within the puzzle. With nothing left to conserve for, everyone attacks, but it's tough to know how best to ration your effort or your gears. Attack too hard, and you'll crack. Don't attack hard enough, and the others will ride away.
Kevin attacked first, right before the turn. He cracked first. (Too bad, too, as he was instrumental in getting the break to work and creating each selection.)
Everyone else leapt out their saddles to surge up the hill. They all looked so strong, I was certain I was doomed to yet again finish well behind, but I sat behind and tried to maintain their pace.
A third of the way up the hill, the first rider cracked.
Then the second rider cracked.
I got out of the saddle. I just needed one more rider to crack: John, the big rider from LAPT.
He would not. Instead, he crested the hill with a small lead, a lead that grew as the road flattened and I couldn't coax any more sprint out of my legs. The best I could do was desperately fight off the 3rd place rider before me.
I had spent all week visualizing this race, and I was delighted when it all unfolded exactly as I'd hoped. It's now been 24 hours, and more than a few of those hours have been spent visualizing those final 200 meters. Victory was so close! Could I have given it a few more kicks? Was it a physical failure or a mental one?
I'll never know, but I do know I'm excited to take these legs into Galena next week: Sur la plaque!