A rolling wheelset gathers no moss, so the XXX Racing-AthletiCo posse saddled up and crossed the border into Packerland for Saturday's Leland Grand Prix. I'll say, there was a surreal feeling to the start/finish area, as if half the racing enthusiasts from the West Bank of the Great Lakes just decided to meet up at a random intersection in Wisconsin. "Hi, welcome to Leland, watch you don't get hit by the tractor."
My dramatics for the day decided to manifest themselves during the warmup miles with fellow 'mates Eric Davis, Greg Heck, Alan Rovge and Jeff Roberts. Anticipating the mile-long, 700-foot climb that is the notorious characteristic of the course, I had put on a rear wheel fitted with a 12-25 cassette the night before. While cycling through my gears during the warmup, there was a sudden and massive crunching sound beneath me. Either I was being attacked by angry dwarfs with power tools, or I had just done something expensive to my drive train. I think I would have preferred the dwarfs.
After extracting my bent derailleur from what was left of the drive side spokes of a Dura Ace WH-7800 rear wheel, I was able to wobble-roll back to the cars. With Alan and Jeff cheering me on, I used my surplus of upper body strength to bend the rear hanger back to level and threw on my other rear wheel. Man, walking by all those weight machines at the Bally's this winter really paid off. The trouble was that we were two minutes past the start time -- and my new rear wheel was sporting an 11-21 rear cassette. Great for Magnus Backstedt. Bad for Eric Goodwin. Alas, there was no time to ponder the fun times that now lay ahead, as the officials were herding cyclists to the start area.
The rollout was civilized during the 4-mile hop to the main loop, which our group would tackle three times. Guys were chatting, the weather had defied forecasts and looked sublime and XXX Racing-AthletiCo was riding safe at the front with numerous representatives, including Greg, who I think was quoting stuff from American Flyers at me. On the opening meters of the hill, about five miles in, the chatter subsided and things got down to business. I was quickly into the small ring and quickly over to my 39x21. No more gears and nowhere to go but up. The sprocket gremlins got Eric Davis as well, as his bike started barking at him when he tried to get to his 23. So both of us were riding flatlander ratios for this little endeavor and it was about to get fugly. The pack started to thin and I crested the hill still in contact with the front...but I was hanging by a thread. Inhale, exhale, pedal pedal.
The wonderful layout of this course gave ample time to recover on the backside of the loop, with some long flats and some screaming, 40+ mph descents (see Luke's report for a more vivid description of the downhills!). On one of the first lap rollers, I somehow pulled away from the peleton by a few dozen meters. Defying sanity and logic, I had this crazy idea that if I could get a head start on the next trip up the hill, I'd stand a better chance of sticking with the front. So I put my head down and rapidly added about 15 seconds to my gap on the field. I was able to hold that margin for the four miles or so back to the base of the climb, where I was promptly eaten alive by a large pack of angry racers, who didn't even bother to chew before spitting me out the back in disgust.
The remainder of that second trip up the hill was a mix of Flatliners and Dazed and Confused -- maybe with some Monty Python's "Meaning of Life" thrown in for good measure. I had to raggedly alternate between sitting and standing -- and yes, I kept hitting my right lever, hoping for another gear to magically manifest itself. Over the top with some pathetic whimpering noises, and then the pleasant sight of a half dozen guys spinning slowly with their heads down, well within my grasp. I latched on and we quickly went single file. The main group -- another eight or so riders -- was in sight up the road. Tally ho! The chase was on. I read about this "bonding to fight a common enemy" in magazines, of course, but this was my first experience of truly sharing the workload with other squads in live battle. We all -- well, almost all -- traded productive pulls over the top of the loop. The lead group was coming back slowly. A few of us took some hero pulls, going all out until we were absolutely forced to fall back. We reeled in the pack just before the major descent, and I celebrated by banging my head on my bars in sheer exhaustion and sucking down a Strawberry clif Shot.
This time around I hid myself in the group like a good little racer. Two guys had gone way, way off the front during our chase and with the pace car not even in sight, so nobody even talked about trying to get them back. I was chatting with some guys from Fargo (!) when we began to approach the final trip up the hill. I said my goodbyes to my new friends, just in case. However, this time up, I was able to concentrate on my form, cadence and breathing, and although I went over the top last, I was still clinging to the tail of the pack.
The run-in to the finish was astoundingly, amazingly, inexplicably dull. Everyone seemed to have too much energy, yet nobody wanted to use it. With more than a dozen guys still in the group, the race official who had assured us "we've never had a sprint of more than four guys here" was about to eat her words. The center line rule was in effect all the way through the finish, and we were stretching the limits of this 9-foot wide patch of tarmac by going four wide. I picked my pony: a guy wearing an all-green Heineken kit, thinking "Hey -- this is a sprint and he's wearing green." The sprint itself was without any drama with no room to maneuver, the order that the sprint started in was basically the order that it finished in: the guys that had been four wide across the road took the first four spots, and I was fifth (seventh overall). Not sure of everyone's finish, but Alan was a strong 18th, followed closely by Greg (21st) and Eric Davis (23rd).
So, some expensive lessons were learned, but I'd love to return to this event. The course is both challenging and a thrill to ride -- with the right gears, of course.