During the off season, I worked and worked and worked to get myself into race ready condition, with Hillsboro being my first race. Along the way, I've had a lot of equipment issues that have attempted to derail my training. I have broken two frames, which has been the most insanely frustrating I've had to deal with in a long time.
Races so far have been far from great. I flatted out of Hillsboro 15 miles in. That's fun and makes the long travel totally worth it. At Vernon Hills, I had an untimely mental lapse on the last turn of the last lap costing me an almost certain podium position and landing me in 21st. That's stupid. I did well at both of those races last year as a 5, so that was a major early let down and a lost first month of the season. The only thing for me to hang my hat on was my perceived level of fitness which I felt was much higher than it was a year previous.
All those issues aside, I was ready to rock and roll for Fox River Grove. My 2nd frame still in transit / replacement, I borrowed a Max Lelli Tiburzi (2009 team issue bike) from Erik Didriksen. Much thanks to Erik. I owe you one. I had little time to ride it, but I wasn't about to let that be another excuse for failure.
I love steep hill climbs. They're hard and tend to separate fields quickly. In my limited racing experience, I have found myself able to hang with the best on a variety of climbs. Fox River Grove has the second hardest hill I've had a chance to race, with Snake Alley taking honors as the hardest of the hard. I don't have a typical climber's physique at 6'4" and 190 lbs but that doesn't stop me from trying to be good at it.
Warming up, I felt OK but not great. The hill felt a lot harder than I remembered it. However, once the race started all was going according to plan. I wanted to remain in the front group for the duration of the race. I knew riders would be falling off the pace on the climb after every lap and the final selection would be made with a lap or two to go. At about 3 laps in, a crash took me out, with much of the field behind me also going down or coming to a complete stop. The rider to my left stalled out and fell on me on the steepest part of the hill. I fought hard to get back on the bike and not fall over myself. Starting from a stop on a steep hill is really hard. I don't recommend trying it. The race was actually neutralized for the guy who fell. After a 5 minute wait at the start line the race was back on. The group quickly splintered again and I found myself not only in the front of the lead group, but pushing the pace up the hill. I felt fantastic and I suspected that the pace was probably putting a hurt on riders further back making the lead group more select with every turn of the pedals.
Going up was great; going down not so hot. I found that my technical bike handling skills on the descent left a lot to be desired. The road down is quite wide and we were using every inch of it to take the turns at maximum speed. I was a bit timid here and let a small gap open up on the downhill sections. Even though I would fight back, this timidity would prove to be costly.
On the last lap, the lead group had about 8-10 riders hitting the hill. I fell back to about sixth wheel and let the leaders push while keeping close contact. xXx had two others in this group: Ian Murray and William Pankonin. I was liking our odds for something special. Again, the downhill was difficult. The front was slowly moving up; I was slowly moving back. I wanted to push hard, but the last thing I wanted to do was take an unnecessary risk and jeopardize not only myself but the rest of the race. I stayed back at about 8th wheel through the final turn. After the turn, I hit the jets for the sprint finish. I was too far back to win but did manage to cruise by a couple of other riders to finish fifth. Ian took the win and William took second. Team success.
That was my best result as a Cat 4. Of course, I wanted to be higher, but given the inconsistency in training due to equipment issues and poor results in prior races, this result felt GREAT. Congratulations to Ian and William - you guys killed it and made the team look good on the podium. Much love goes out to RDS Cycling for putting together a great race. This is easily my favorite criterium in the Chicagoland area. I'll certainly be coming back for more next year.