First, the good news: For 63 miles, we absolutely owned the 2008 Hillsboro-Roubaix.
The bad news: It was a 66-mile race.
Last year I spent most of the first lap at the rear of a congested pack. Pedal, brake, yell. Pedal, brake, yell. It was an unpleasant and stressful way to spend an hour, so the plan this year was to start near the front and stay there. We'd be active in any attacks, but we'd try to save ourselves for the decisive trips through the cobbles, and we'd sacrifice ourselves to ensure we were the first to enter the narrow climb.
I lined up in the front row and joked with Jason Mindeman of Vitaminwater. Shortly after the neutral rollout, a Ghisallo rider picked up the pace and Shane held his wheel. Nobody else reacted, and the two of them floated away. Soon they were out of sight, and at the end of the first lap we were told they'd built a 3-minute lead. (Consulting photos later, I'd learn it was in fact a 2-minute lead.)
I settled into blocking position, asserting myself between first and fifth wheel. Mesa put in some strong pulls, occasionally falling back to send up reinforcements, but with Calvin and Peter's help, we made sure the chases never got traction. With a heavy crosswind from the left, it was elementary to positions ourselves on the right gutter. Anyone who wanted to enjoy the sweetest spot of our draft would have to risk a trip through the gravel for the privilege.
Was it likely that a two-person break could stay away 66 miles? Not very, but last year a guy solo'd more than 40 miles for the win, and Shane showed at camp that he was on top form. Anything can happen at Hillsboro. And by staying up front, I kept myself out of trouble and gave myself a premium view of the frequent road hazards.
I was third up the hill on the first trip through town, sitting behind two Mesa riders. This was exactly where I'd hoped to be, and I didn't even after to work to get there. Conveniently enough, a masters pack was ascending at the same time, creating a bottleneck that helped stymie the chase even more.
The chase got more aggressive the second lap. Three Barbasol riders organized themselves well and contributed quite a bit, helped out by Julian of Vitaminwater and an unattached rider who would eventually win the field sprint. Meanwhile, I continued to rotate through the front five positions, soft pedaling every time I found myself at the front. I was motivated by frequent cries of "XXX is blocking!" and "Don't let XXX control the pace!" (Could these have been the lamentations of the women that Conan talked about? Now I just needed to see my enemies driven before me and I would know the "best in life.")
Mark joined me at the front and helped block. He wondered whether we should try to bridge to Shane. I counseled against it: If two teammates got off the front, that would provide too much of a carrot to the pack. Instead, I settled into second wheel and told Mark to go back to fifth or sixth and to mark as many attacks as he could, a duty that he performed admirably.
Alas, as we climbed into town at the end of the second lap, we absorbed Shane. This time through town I took the front, driving tempo over the bricks to apply as much hurt to the pack as possible.
As soon as we left town and caught the remnants of a chase group that had passed Shane, the peloton became molto tranquillo. Tactical confusion hung in the air. The handful who'd been chasing didn't know what to do know that there was nobody to chase. Those of us who'd been blocking didn't know what to do now that there was nobody for whom to block. Those who'd been sitting in, well, they continued to sit in.
I stayed near the front. I launched a few probing attacks, but they went nowhere. Second wheel is a lousy place to attack if you want to surprise the field.
With about 10 miles to go, a Mesa rider attacked on the course's steepest climb. I marked it fine, but as we approached the top a second Mesa rider launched his own attack and went clear, and I wasn't able to follow.
Could he stay away? As I pondered, I was joined by Kirby and Calvin, whom I hadn't seen in quite awhile. (I was fairly oblivious to what was going on behind me. For the first 60 miles I don't know if I saw more than a dozen different riders.) This was like the arrival of the cavalry. I didn't have a chance to tell Calvin how happy I was to see him because he immediately launched himself in pursuit of the Mesa attacker. He was joined by three others, and Kirby joined me in blocking duty. "Piano, piano," I told him. "Go slow but look like you're working hard," I told a Mesa rider who led with us.
Julian would attempt to bridge, but when he got re-absorbed he informed us, with the certainty of "Hawk" Harrelson, "They gone!" This was comforting. Kirby asked me about the situation and I told him this was perfect: With four miles to go we had a rider well off the front, we were feeling strong and the only person willing to pull was a Lucas Oil rider who was noticeably flagging.
Sadly, with a mile to go we saw a black dot crawling up the hill: Calvin had been dropped from the chase group. So close! Now the endgame rolled into high gear. I started up the hill in second but for the first time all day I felt burn in my legs and I lost about a dozen positions. A crash at the crest sent me on a detour through the gutter, and I was never able to grab any of the wheels ahead of me, let alone get in front of Kirby to give him a promised leadout.
It didn't help that I spent time on the bricks jibber-jabbering with former teammate Jeff Wat, as casually as if we'd bumped into each other on the lakefront path. He took things a little more seriously and outsprinted me for 15th place, leaving me with 16th.
Mark, who had fallen from the group after heroically chasing so many attacks, wondered afterward if we'd spent too much energy blocking. Possibly. But if it had worked out, it would have been just the right amount of energy, and Shane or Calvin would have been buying us lunch.
No doubt we could have handled things differently as far as tactics. But we should be proud of how strong and assertively we rode, and if this was an indication of our form, we have a lot of good things to look forward to this season. I can't wait to race with this bunch again. Peter and Calvin, I think you have some upgrade tables to study.