Anyone close to me knows that I've been chanting about the Snake Alley Criterium in my sleep since facing the beast for the first time in 2004. As I trekked my trainer around in the snow all winter, chugged up all those bumps in San Luis Obispo and spun around in the basement of Bally's, I chalked it all up to the greater good of conquering the Snake. Despite an epic chain of mechanical woes (no pun intended) in the weeks leading up to Snake, my fitness was on peak and I was ready to rock.
With Memorial Day Weekend finally here, Erica and I loaded up the Mazda, grabbed Andy and Tania Daley and zipped out of town, leaving behind the land of Starbucks, $2.50 gas and flat, four-turn criteriums. We crossed the border to Corn Country in no time and cruised into Fun City (aka. Burlington) with two bikes, four wheels and a bundle of anticipation. We were in time to check into the hotel, gear up and saddle up the bikes to catch the end of the Friday road races. Watching our comrades crest the hill as shadows on the horizon and then blaze into town at 38 miles per hour just got me more riled up, although we were all concerned when Julian decided to get famous by staging a high-speed dismount and a subsequent full-frontal film scene. Heal fast, JB.
Fast-forward, and I'll spare you the in-between moments where I'm pacing in the hotel room, zoning out into my pasta dinner and pedaling with my eyes closed on the trainer. It's SNAKE ALLEY day, and I'm ready. On the line for XXX Racing-AthletiCo in the Cat IV race: Joel Feinberg, Eric Davis, Alan Rovge, Matt Welch, Jason Mindeman, Andy Daley and myself. Having registered 30 seconds after the flyer was posted, I have a coveted front row spot. We're packed in shoulder-to-shoulder across the middle of the road, as the veterans know that the drag race to the first turn is a key to staying out of trouble on the first climb. A few last words from the officials and then the gun.
I've probably clipped into my pedals 5,000 times in the last three years. All of those clip-ins were better than this one. My 24 inches of space on the starting line went to zero in an instant. My left leg got bumped and I missed the first clip. I missed the second due to mild panic. When the third attempt clicked home, I had gone from the front 10 to fifth from the back. And that's when the drama started. At the first right turn, someone chunked on the inside and took out another rider or two. I couldn't cut inside so I kept going left, and left, and left, until there was no longer room between the sliding, screeching bikes and the curb. I pulled up on my handlebars and rode over what I think was a nice pair of Ksyriums. Still struggling to cover the lower hill, I can see the leaders are already three quarters of the way up the Snake. I'm easily 30 seconds down, just 30 seconds into the race. Having missed my earlier cue to shift, I attempt to move into the small ring in the middle of the lower hill -- nothing. So I start working my right lever to get to a smaller gear -- and the front ring shifts. Spinning like a fool, I finally cross over onto the cobbles, just as a rider capsizes on my right and slams to the tarmac without even the slightest attempt to brace himself. That was all shoulder/head and looked like it hurt. After nearly coming to a complete stop, I squeeze by on the left and then pass another stalled rider getting a push from a spectator. We've entered into the realm of sheer panic and chaos -- with 11 and a half laps to go.
If there's a saving grace to Snake Alley, it's that there's always room to move on the course, because guys are immediately strung out and questioning their mortality. I picked up a few spots on the descent and lower straights of the first lap, but had to dodge more guys riding backwards on the second trip up the Snake. As I hit the downhill for the second time, calls of "rider down" rang out again, as some poor dude had bought the farm following the hard left and was in a heap near the sidewalk. Another photo opportunity for the Burlington Hawkeye, however.
I can't tell you too much about laps 3-8 to be honest. They all seemed the same. I could only see the front of the race when I was at the base of the lower climb. I got the front derailleur action sorted out -- I was fine as long as I shifted on the flats. My chain was still slipping in my 39x19 and my 39x21 each time up the Snake. I didn't have the state of mind to try the barrel adjuster. Chalk that up as a mistake attributed to my panic state. I had my 25 cog to get me over the top at least. I kept picking up spots on that lower climb, and one or two riders each trip up the Snake. There came a point around lap six or seven, however, where I had to sit up and relax -- I was burying myself with anxiety on top of the workload, and it was going to end me if I didn't start paying attention to my form and recovery. I finally remembered to start dropping my heels on my pedal stroke while climbing and move my body weight back a little, and the improvement was immediate and dramatic.
Meanwhile, at the front of the race, Andy Daley was making life miserable on the contenders. He had a great start and was doing damage to the pack all day. You can see the video in the gallery of a particularly vicious attack that gave him a double digit lead on the chasers. In that group were a rider from Irwin's/Toyota, a rider from Atlas, one from VisionQest and Alex Bishop, a former Triple-XXXer who rides for Team Bloomington. I'm certain that Andy's attack took some strength out of the front runners, which would play later in the race.
I had been within a small working group with a rider from BBC and another rider from Irwin's when, on the 10th lap right before the start/finish, we miraculously caught the front. I didn't hear angels and there wasn't a shining light from the heavens, but it did feel like a miracle. I knew we had been closing on a pack, but I was in' disbelief that it was the tete de course until the announcer called out that we were indeed the lead group. Andy looked back and gave me a "Where the hell have YOU been?" glance. Then he went to the front and did a pull -- the man is in serious form.
I grabbed a wheel for the lap and then moved up to the third spot at the bell, still having trouble grasping the fact that a potential win was staring me in the face. There was the expected surge on the lower hill and I entered the Snake on the right -- only to get cut off and pinched by a guy cutting the first switchback tight on the inside. I uttered a few words that you won't find in Webster's, fortunately out of hearing range of the uscf official that was at the next turn. Two guys went by me on the left right as my chain slipped again -- and that would prove to be the moment.
The four guys ahead got about three or four seconds on me during that last climb. I chased with everything I had and took lots of risks on the backside of the course, but I simply couldn't close the gap. Alex Bishop went on to grab his first win, followed by Atlas, Irwin's and BBC. I grabbed fifth and Darkhorse Daley stayed in there for seventh. Our squad represented quite well in the IVs overall with three other guys making the top 20 despite having raced on Friday. Eric Davis was 14th overall, Matt Welch grabbed 19th and Joel Feinberg took 20th. Rezident sprinters Alan Rovge and Jason Mindeman were 30th and 37th, respectively. No DNFs for the IVs!
I want to thank the insane Triple-X cheering squad from the bottom of my heart. Up and down the entire climb, people were screaming their heads off with reckless abandon. There were actual moments where I considered dropping out of this race, but hearing my name called out over and over amidst the chaos and cowbells is enough to keep those cranks turning. You guys are the best!