LaCrosse is an omnium weekend consisting of a hill TT on Friday night, a crit on Saturday and a road race on Sunday. This had initially been a target race for me and I had a strong time trial (5th) but bad placement in the bell lap left me with a disappointing 15th in the crit. However, Rob Whittier had an even better TT (2nd) and pulled off a great solo flyer with 2 to go in the crit to take 2nd. Aaron Baker also finished 3rd in the crit and would be joining us for the road race. We talked it over and decided that Rob was our strongest hand and we needed to work for him. He now sat 2nd in the overall behind Chris Stevens--a former triathlete with huge power. Chris had won the TT by 30 seconds which meant he could climb and he soloed away to win the crit on Saturday so we knew he could sustain his power. We obviously would mark him in the road race but there were also a handful of other riders within striking distance of Rob's 2nd place.
I went into the road race on Sunday knowing that I had a job to do and a role to play. 1) Cover the race leader, Chris Stevens. He had the strength to solo away from the field if given the opportunity. 2) Do whatever I could to reduce the field so that the final group was as small as possible while also including Aaron and Rob. 3) Keep Rob safe and well rested for the finish.
The road race course is a good one. After a neutral roll out, it runs east through some rolling hills before turning south and down a long, non-technical descent. The road flattens, turns west then begins to climb gradually before ending into a solid mile long, 5% grade climb. The road flattens, turns north then another right hand turn puts us headed east on the start/finish straight. A 15mph wind out of the SSW would play into the strategy as much as the climb itself.
Lap one started out pleasantly. The pace lifted after the neutral roll out but the descent was cautious at best and the group remained together when we hit the base of the climb. As the grade increased I listened to the riders. I felt fine but heard a lot of heavy breathing around me. That can only mean one thing: Attack! As we crested the hill Aaron was at the front and a little gap had opened. I ramped it up and slingshotted around him. When I had the nerve to look back I saw that no one was chasing so I kept pushing. I made the right hand turn north to pick up some tail wind established a solo break away that continued for the next 25 minutes. I passed through the finish line with a 40 second gap. Perfect. If I could make it into the rolling hills and the descent I might be able to stay out of sight and hold it. More than likely--and this was my intent all along--I would force the field to do some work. Some riders would fall off in the chase but I knew Rob was going to be nice and comfy letting the field pull him along. When the catch finally happened it was Aaron who had bridged up to me--partly to animate the field even more and partly to give me a friendly wheel to recover on which I greatly appreciated.
The descent in the second lap just pissed me off. The initial drop was fine but once it leveled off no one on the front wanted to pedal and the pace slowed to a comfy 19 mph. This brought the group right back together as we began the 2nd time up the hill. I parked myself on Chris Steven's wheel and waited. Sure enough, he attacked and I jumped with him. He looked back and gave up. We settled back into the group. He did it again and again I jumped on his wheel. He sat up. One more time he attacked as we climbed into the steep portion and again I went with. Finally he sat up but this one hurt me. I started to worry about getting myself into trouble toward the top. I wisely found Aaron's wheel just in case I needed someone to keep me in touch with the group. It proved unnecessary as the pace never really picked up and by the time we made the turn north with the tailwind I was starting to recover enough to think about what the endgame might be.
As the passed through the finish line to begin the final lap I had one goal in mind: keep the group strung out enough so we would hit the 3rd climb in single file. We had shed the weakest riders by that point but I still saw a couple big muscular sprinter types in the field. There was no way I wanted them battling it out with Rob in the final sprint. They needed to be dealt with so the lead group over the hill would be small and manageable--but include both Rob and Aaron. I went to the front and looked for every opportunity I could to make the group single file. In the rolling hills I stood on the uphills to keep the pace from slowing. We turned south and picked up a head/cross wind from the right so I put my wheel on to the center line and the rest of the field in the gutter. No one wanted to fight the cross wind to come around me and we hit the descent single file. I was second wheel going downhill behind a huge IScorp guy and when we hit the bottom made sure we kept the pace hot. On the run up IScorp guy started to slow and I moved back up to the front. I felt my right quad start to twinge a bit and immediately devoured the remaining blocks I had in my jersey pocket--no time for leg cramps! I glanced back and could see the field was thinning so I just kept on it. Then we hit the steep pitch and I knew I was cooked. A 25 min solo break, chasing down attacks and setting tempo had taken its toll. A few riders came around me and I was elated to see Rob--and then Aaron--parked comfortably on Chris Steven's wheel. I gave it one more kick but couldn't stay with that group of 6. Then I looked back: nothing. The nearest riders were a good 30m behind me. The lead group was away and I felt confident that, with two teammates in a 6 man group, xXx had a great opportunity to be on the podium.
And they were. When the dust settled Aaron was 2nd (missed the win by a bike throw,) and Rob 3rd, ahead of Chris Stevens. The points kept Rob comfortably in 2nd place for the overall omnium. I don't think I have ever been as tired at the end of a race--rolling in to take 11th. My legs were jello. I could barely wait to cross the finish line to stop my Garmin, switch to the small ring and start to spin them out.
It was a great day to cap off an equally great weekend for xXx. I am so proud of my teammates and the way we raced: smart, strong and with panache!