Watching Edvald Boassen Hagen's win the other day in the Tour de France, coupled with Steve Tilford's recent blog post about performing under lots of, or a lack of, pressure made me think I should write something up about my road race in Michigan at the beginning of the month.
Let's cut straight to the chase: the decisive move of the weekend for me. We were 5.5 miles from the finish line in the 90-mile road race, on the third and final day of a TT-Crit-RR stage race. The second of two successive solo moves had just come back, and I joked with a rider from Leadout Racing that his team should perform its namesake and "HTC" it at the front to bring us to the line quicker. Then immediately after doing that, and, despite the joke, still getting that rider to come to the front and pull, I realized it was the perfect time to go. Little bit of a lull right after a long, hard effort. I waited patiently as the terrain, pace and my position all combined into the perfect moment. I sprinted full-out, put a good 30 seconds of effort into the bike before I even thought about seeing if I had a gap. When I realized no one had come with me, and that the gap was indeed sizable, I figured, 'Ah, what the hell?" Spent the next 12 minutes off the front, much longer than anticipated.
I hadn't even wanted to race that weekend, especially not with 3+ hours of travel, only did so because Tom was looking for some company/upgrade points and he marketed the weekend well: free place to stay in-town, with a bed, home-cooked meals, the beach, oh, and we'll race bikes, too. I was sold easily.
The weekend, then, at least in my mind, was more about leisure and vacation and getting out of Chicago than it was racing for a result. So it was that I entered the last 15 miles of the road race, content and excited to lead Tom out for a possible bunch sprint victory. He hadn’t necessarily believed in himself to get over the hills and make all the selections, but here we were on the relatively flat run-in toward the finish, pack whittled down from the mid-20s to about the high teens. The three guys to watch were obviously Jake Rytlewski (Kenda), Chris Fisher (Priority Health) and Brian Sheedy (leader's jersey, unattached). Sheedy, an ex-pro, had won both the crit and the TT. Dude can TT, dude wins the bunch sprint, he's trouble. Rounding to the nearest second, Fisher and Rytlewski finished the first two stages with identical times; only an extra 10 seconds of time bonus in the crit for Fisher separated those two. Surely no one was going to get away in the last 15 miles, everyone wanted to lock up his GC spot, and mass bunch finish would ensue. At least that was my thought. Guys and teams rotated through to catch a solo break off the front, and I was contributing, as I was gunning for Tom. At one point, pace picking up to catch said solo rider, I see Tom wince as I drop back into the group. Didn't say anything, but I knew it wasn't good. I pull up next to him - this is long after he unsuccessfully attempted to sell his bike mid-race to the race leader Sheedy - and he tells me something to the effect of "I'm cramping, not good," but perhaps with fewer words and more facial contortion. I could sense him suffering at one point, sitting on my wheel, as I tried to lead him back on to a small group that was breaking away at the front. We'd have to make do. Pace would slow, surge, slow down again, etc. Eventually we reeled the solo rider in and immediately another guy goes off. Could have been Mr. Aggression, Joey Iuliano, who probably rode off the front more than he did in the pack that day. When he was brought back, that was when I went.
I had no pressure at this point. Rarely do I have pressure from teammates that is nearly as forceful as the pressure I place on myself. There was no pressure for me to have gotten into a break earlier in the race, no pressure to make said break stick, and there was even less pressure now. Maybe that helped me ride better, maybe not. Surely as I think about the heaping plates of macaroni and cheese I consumed at John and Donna’s (two in an incredibly long line of extremely gracious xXx Racing hosts), the massive ice cream, the cloudy-but-not-unbearably-hot day at the beach, I know racing wasn't the main focus here. Or maybe it was. Eh, who knows? No pressure, at least.
I was in 6th place on GC. Not terribly stressful. Again, no pressure. After riding 85 miles through some hills in Michigan, I really did not want to go for it alone from such a long way out, I'd even told Tom mid-race that maybe I'd give it a crack at 1 or 2km to go, but I didn't want to actually think about that fact too long, or I wouldn't have attacked in the first place. In bike racing, you gotta think a lot, but overthinking tends to do more harm than good. And like I said, with no pressure to succeed, I didn't necessarily care if I failed spectacularly. I'm also a firm believer in having extremely loose plans and letting the race dictate the exact details. Plan was to go from 2km out? Race told me go from 5.5 miles, and I obliged.
As I soloed away, the group looked at each other, over and over, unsure of who was going to chase me down. I kept a steady pace; I was still operating under the assumption that the Triple Threats, all wanting to win either the GC or at least today's stage, would expend enough energy in catching me in the last kilometers to enable Tom, who had been getting a free ride the whole time, to come around them and post up. Leadout Racing, which hadn't gotten great results in the two prior days, would also surely be working hard to bring it all back together. Minute after minute passed, and I kept stealing glances back to make sure what I was seeing was real. I had well over 25 seconds as I crested a smallish hill. The gap continued to go up. My brain danced a 180 and I realized not only do I now have to win this thing, but I have win enough time back to leapfrog people in GC, and maybe pull off a top 3 overall. So I kept up the pace, made it into the town of Lowell where the finishing stretch was, heard Tom's wife, his parents, his parents' friends/our hosts, yelling for me, and knew I was going to win. But I also knew the 30-second gap had all but vanished, and the peloton was bearing down on me. I gave it everything to the line, unable to give any sort of victory salute until I had gained every possible valuable second for the overall. It was strange to win, having come into the race with zero expectations for myself. Surely this lack of pressure played to my own mental advantage.
So all in all, a great weekend. A 4th for me in GC (was able to leapfrog a few, but 7 seconds off of 3rd place Rytlewski's time), a 4th for Tom in the crit, and a win in the RR. Considering the only people to beat me on GC and beat Tom in the crit were either on Saturn at one point in their careers or raced the Tour of California, I can say it's not a terrible thing for us both to lose to such elite company.