Bike racing 3 days straight along the Iowa / Illinois border on Memorial Day weekend had the potential to be a great time or a disaster based on my performance in the races. After a deflating 18th place finish at Monsters of the Midway with friends and family watching, I was looking to regain my strong early season form and grab that elusive win that I have been so close to getting.
Day 1: Snake Alley
I was nervous about this race well before the day started. I read horror stories about riders stalling out and falling on the snake, not being able to finish, having a tough time on the descents, and epic mechanical failures. I arrived early and watched the racing before me and all of those fears were realized before my eyes. My goal for the race was simple: finish strong with myself and my trusty Felt F75 in one piece.
We had 7 riders in the field but team tactics on this race seemed to be meaningless as the snake tends to break up groups quickly. I wanted to see if I could keep up with the front group for the duration of the race. On starting, I was about 15th up the hill. I knew that I had to get closer to the front to remain competitive so I hit the descent hard. I knew the lines I wanted on the descent before riding the course (courtesy of the guide Luke posted on CBR) and that paid early dividends for me. I gained a few positions on the first downhill. The 2nd time up the snake, I gained a few positions on the climb and again had a good descent, taking a few more positions. After 3 times up the snake, I was in the lead with only 3 riders to be seen behind me. Things are going pretty well at this point. When I got into the lead, I thought that I had a chance at holding out and winning. I held that lead for one lap and that's when some fatigue started to creep into my legs. I was finding the snake more and more difficult every time through. My lines on the descent started to get just a little sloppy. On the 5th lap, a rider passed me on the climb. By the start of the 6th time up, I was in 4th place. Nobody was yet in sight behind me but it was just a matter of time before they would be. The 7th time up saw me in 4th place and the other 3 well ahead of me. On the final climb, I was passed by xXx cat 5 star Chris Koster and Daniel Pollard of Spidermonkey. I had nothing left to try and hang on or make up that ground. I ended up finishing 6th, without falling, mechanical difficulties or any other horrors. I will call that a successful ending to my first try at the dreaded Snake Alley. Rounding out the xXx standings in the top 10 for the day is Chris Koster in 5th (he took 3rd the day before in the road race), Michael Young in 7th, and Matt Dawley in 9th. We all owe some of the success to our screaming teammates on the snake giving all that they could to everyone on the team. That really does make a difference. The race was pure hell. It was anguish. It was punishing. It was the most difficult thing I have ever physically done. Yet I can't wait to do it again. Next year, I'll be up that hill 12 times.
It was awesome to stick around and watch the rest of the day's races. Jacques was great in his open Master's race wrapping up 3rd in a power packed field. This was by far the best crowd both in numbers and enthusiasm I have seen at a race so far and it's pretty clear to see why everyone is out there between the challenge of the course and the phenomenal athleticism and fortitude required to finish.
Day 2: Melon City
After Snake Alley nearly breaking me completely, I was feeling surprisingly good the next morning. I head to Muscatine, where day 2's race is taking place. Our team numbers are very thin in all categories for the day. Nobody had a team mate in any race except for the 1/2 race with Seth and JT. In my race, there were a few familiar faces from Cycle Smithy but that's about it. The race course loops around scenic Weed Park and featured a slight uphill at the start, a 90 degree turn with more slight uphill, then a rapid descent down a sweeping corner (where speeds hovered around 40 mph), a small speed hump which got the bikes off the ground followed by a prolonged climb followed by a tight turn before the finish. I was up with the lead group throughout the entire race. I did my best to remember to ride smart and find a wheel whenever one was available. On the last lap, I was about 4th or 5th wheel coming into the final climb. I hit the hill with everything I had coming off the descent. As soon as I had to start dropping gears to keep moving, I quickly lost positions. I finished 13th.
That was not an ideal finish for me. I should have attacked early since I knew that the climb was a weakness and the last tight corner practically determines position at the line. However, if I had tried attacking early and still finished 13th, I'd probably still feel the same about my result. I know I am better than 13th in that race. Maybe my legs didn't feel as good as I thought, or maybe I'm just not fast enough. No matter what it was, I was none too pleased with the result. I had one more race to try and rebound.
Day 3: Quad Cities Criterium
Monday morning comes and I comfortably roll out of bed, eat, get dressed and ride the bike to the race from my dad's place. That's a nice way to get started on a race day. I was ready to get the sting of 13th from the day before out of my mind. I felt great, much better than Sunday. I got down to the race nice and early and watched Seguin and Morrissey take 1st and 3rd in the Master's 4/5. That's a good start to the day for xXx.
The cat 5 race begins with a small but potent contingent of xXx riders - Chris Koster, John Wolters, and Matt Dawley. I had a good feeling about our chances. The early pace of the race felt pretty relaxed. A lot of riders were keeping it slow through the corners. Maybe there were some tired legs out there from racing all weekend. I kept near the front of the pack again and stayed on a wheel. The pace finally started to accelerate with a few attacks here and there. At one point, Matt was off the front with a couple other riders. I was 2nd wheel on the chase group. The guy in front turned back and said "Come on man, take a pull. Let's get these guys." I just laughed and sat back letting him hang high and dry out there. Eventually, a concerted effort of riders from the back surged, and I moved with them leaving my weathered wind shield in the dust to never been seen again. Matt and the 2 others were caught quickly and I was sitting at about 3rd wheel.
The 2 lap warning came and the pace hit the high gear with xXx still hanging on, now with Chris on my wheel. Finally, on the last lap, a rider broke off the front. I felt that he went a bit too early and wouldn't be able to hold the pace. The group concurred and let him get out there with no help. Entering the final turns, we were all right there and Chris is still on my wheel. I am hauling through the final turns and I hear "Keep Going!" from Chris. In full sprint, Chris slingshots past me into 2nd place. We just executed a successful lead out! I end up in the 4th spot. It would have been nice to be up on the podium next to Chris, but it wasn't meant to be. He did give me a shout out for the lead I gave him during his podium interview, so that is all I really needed. Teamwork was the name of the game today. John came in just behind us in 6th and Matt finished 14th.
I stuck around to watch Peter and his 2 breakaway partners absolutely obliterate the cat 3 field en route to a 2nd place finish. It was good to see Peter crushing the competition after his tough day at Melon City where he was in position to place in the top 5 in the cat 3 race until he crashed out in the last turn of the last lap.
Memorial Day is officially my new favorite holiday. All of the weekend's races featured great courses, top notch talent, and as much racing as one can take. This was an experience that I won't soon forget. I can see some bright futures for the team's newest riders. I am eagerly looking forward to participating in all of the races again next year and that includes the Friday afternoon Wapello-Burlington road race that I missed. I didn't get my win, but I had a whole lot of fun getting brief a glimpse of victory at Snake Alley and getting pretty darn close in the Quad Cities. That win can't be too far off. Sorry that this report is so long, but as you can probably tell, I am pretty geeked out about this bike racing thing. Next stop: O'Fallon Grand Prix Cat 4/5.