I will preface this by saying my first victory on a bike, and the Ghisallo Foundation’s first win of the season, was a little bitter sweet. For the second year in a row, Fort Davis Hammerfest was cancelled mid-weekend due to forest fires in the area growing out of control, and the looming threat of evacuation. Holland Racing should be thanked immensely for organizing what was still an incredible event. The decision that was made was one nobody wanted, though Holland racing and all of the officials involved handled everything with the aplomb we’ve come to know them by. It would be unfortunate to lose this race on our calendars in the coming years due to this trend of poor timing and acts of God. To date, this was the hardest, most beautiful race I’ve participated in, and I hope to return next year.
The 8 hour drive from Austin gave me, Jesse and Lori all time to ask Christopher, our chauffer and director sportif, enough time to ask a myriad of questions, which resulted in answers that didn’t seem to placate our worries. I was confident in my climbing abilities, but hadn’t raced at altitude in a few years, and never climbed anything quite as long as the 6 mile hike up to the McDonald Observatory off highway 118. The course suited my talents more than any other I’ve raced this season, and the pressure of a getting a good result made me more nervous the closer we got to Prude Ranch.
In the several days leading up to the race, I was concerned about pacing myself for the full 11 mile time trial, not knowing the course or the severity of the last several hundred meters, or how the wind conditions would affect the lead-out to the climb. Comparisons were made to Jester (but longer), Ladera Norte (but not as steep), and Mesa (but longer and steeper). Sometimes diving blindly into the unknown proves fruitful, and I was hopeful things would go OK. Every now and then, though, as my very literal “blind” experience at University Oaks proved, taking a blind plunge probably isn’t the best of ideas… That’s what made me worry.
Stage 1: Uphill TT
Fast-forward to race morning: Right before my start, Jack gave me advice (“wait until mile 5 to ride like Matt DeMartino,” which I took as a compliment) that I used as a gauge, in theory, but being able to see the two riders who started 30 seconds and 1 minute in front of me up the road while I was still waiting to start only meant I’d try to catch them as soon as possible. After rolling off the starting line, I settled quickly in to a 20+ mph rhythm during the first flat mile that led to a right turn and eventual descent down Heartbreak Hill, where our road race that afternoon would finish atop. Right after the descent I caught my 30 second mark, and cruised on towards the rider who started a minute up from me. There was a mild headwind, but I was still able to keep a comfortably high pace. As the road began to kick up around mile 5, I had already passed the first 3 riders in front of me, and made my way closer to Blake McFarling from 787, who started 2 minutes before I did. I was cruising, and as I passed him on a slightly steeper pitch around mile 6 1/2, I knew I was making pretty decent time.
The two mile stretch right before the visitor center’s parking lot, miles 7.5 to about 9.5, was probably the most difficult section of the course for me. The road relentlessly wound up and around the side of Mt. Locke, and never gave you an indication of when it would let up. About 30 minutes in, I questioned my pacing strategy, beginning to feel the effects of the altitude and smoke from near-by fires in my lungs. I wanted to be sure to save enough in my tank for whatever the last ¾ of a mile had in store, but also knew this was the section where I could really put a dent in the rest of the 4/5 field if I maintained composure, and focused on continuing to pick off riders in front of me one by one.
Turning around the parking lot I remember catching sight of the road that led up to Mt. Fowlkes, which appeared to be longer and steeper than the one I was riding. Even though my newly-bought Garmin indicated I had less than a mile to climb, I couldn’t beat back the fear of having to climb that road, up to what looked like a higher observatory. It was clear that the road in the distance was much further than we were racing, but when you’re all in, and your cards are face-up after the longest 40 minute hand of your life, it’s almost impossible to rationalize such concepts of space and time. As I continued upwards, I focused on the road 10 feet in front of my bike, and honestly can’t remember passing the several people I ended up passing in the last few hundred meters. A woman who raced earlier shouted when I hit the 400m mark, but the distance didn’t register and I continued at my steady 8+ mph pace. I thought there must be more to go, and I was convinced the road would kick steeper yet. Coming around what ended up being the last gradual left-hand bend, I saw the finishing tent, thought about it for a second, then stood to sprint and save what final few seconds I could. It was a confusing mess of a finish, and I crossed the line in agony – lungs burning, legs shot, upper body weakened by the effort exerted each time I stood to build momentum on the death march up Mt. Locke.
After each of the two time trials I’ve competed in this year, it’s only taken a few moments to begin thinking about where I could have pushed harder, and at what points of the course I unknowingly held back for fear of what was to come. I by no means felt good at the end, but I didn’t feel nearly as bad as
some people. Don’t get me wrong – that climb up to the observatory was one of the hardest climbs of my life, but I can’t help wishing I had given it more. I felt as though I should have been dry-heaving off of the side of Mt. Locke, lying in a bed of goat-heads with my feet still clipped in to my pedals because I was too weak to fully dismount. I know I have more, and next year I hope to satiate my hunger.
Stage 2: 20 Mile Hilly Road Race
The three hours we had before our afternoon road race was spent lying on the floor of our cabin coughing as if I’d smoked 2 packs of Marlboros for the past 15 years. I’m convinced it was from inhaling the smoke that was in the air, and not necessarily a result of the thinner atmospheric conditions 5,500 feet or so above sea level. Despite the cough, I felt much better than Jesse, who had a cough and was sneezing every 10 seconds. We chatted briefly about race strategy with Jack, who also seemed in pretty good spirits, though not suffering quite as evidently as either Jesse or myself. Since the course was essentially the same as that morning’s time trial, though out about a mile further instead turning off towards the observatory, the goal was to hopefully take advantage of the rest of the field’s lack of recovery and set a blistering pace from the gun. At mile 5, right before the climb, I’d launch either by myself or with whoever thought they could match my pace back up to the visitor’s center. I was nervous about taking the decent back towards the finish in a big group, and wanted to shell as many off the back as possible, as early as possible.
From the gun, the pace was initially set by one of the three Mexican juniors in the race from team Major Motion Cycling Club. We rode casually for about a mile, until Jack motored to the front and set a pace that strung the field out in a way I’ve never seen in a 4/5 race before. Single-file, all the way back. I don’t
think anyone really expected such a high speed so early in a road race, even though we would only be racing 20 miles. As Jack pulled off, Jesse went to the front and continued pushing the pace along with Mike Brown from Flat Belly Organics, who was just as keen on trying to drop the juniors as quickly as possible (if possible).
My move was a little earlier than planned, but it took advantage of a slight gap created by Mike, two of the Major Motion juniors and myself. I made my way to the front just before mile five, and told each of the other three in our group that this was the break that would stick, and that we needed to organize ourselves quickly. We all took short pulls at the front, rotating smoothly until the third junior from Major Motion bridged up to our group and hung about 3 feet off the rear of our pace line. I wasn’t sure if he was struggling to pull through, or purposefully letting everyone else work, but since we had just hit the first mile of the climb, I didn’t want to take chances. Dropping back to him, I said he either needed to pull through and take his turn at the front or that we would leave him to be caught by the chasing peloton. His lack of response either meant he didn’t really care or that he didn’t understand what I was saying, and I accelerated hard, dropping Mike and all but one of the juniors, Gabriel Cano. He and I looked at each other and knew this was our chance to drag ourselves away from the pack. We shared pulls up the majority of the climb around Mt. Locke until around mile 8, where Gabriel gained about 15 seconds on me after upping the tempo. I felt strong, but couldn’t match his pace and didn’t want to become too desperate with more than half of the race to go. Just before the top of the climb I caught
Gabriel and we both looked back to see who was within striking distance. It turns out one of Gabriel’s teammates and another junior from New Mexico had made up some ground and were about 30 seconds back. Gabriel asked if I wanted to wait for them, but knowing 2 more juniors ½ my size in the mix might put me under, I responded only by saying “grab on” and went into time trial mode for the final mile before our turn-around.
After the turn-around there was a slight false-flat back up to the visitor’s center parking lot. Since I did the work out, Gabriel took over, and we could finally see the fruits of our labor – the pained faces of the chase. Groups of two, three, solo riders either dropped from a group or making a final effort to bridge
up to whatever respite awaited behind the wheel of whomever lay ahead. A second surge of energy over took us both as we began our 4 mile descent back home. I let Gabriel pro-tuck his way off the front, since I didn’t trust the cross-winds that were picking up as the race progressed. Regrouping in the last several miles, the headwind became strong, but I was numbed by the fact that I now had a 50% chance of winning my first road race.
We shared pulls equally, though in the end I timed my final pull wrong. Just as I got to the front after the final left-bend, we could see Heartbreak Hill in the distance, and no matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t shake Gabriel from my wheel. I knew with a little over 1K to go I didn’t stand a chance to claim victory, though I didn’t fully give in, holding as high of a pace as my legs could bear. With 200m to go, Gabriel shot by me, posted up, and took the stage win. All I could do at that point was shake my head and think about how Fabian Cancellara must have felt at San Remo this year. Dragging someone to victory sucks.
Waiting around at the finish I saw Jesse and Jack finish several minutes back. Jack finished 22, shot after his heroic effort in the first couple miles, and Jesse surprised the crap out of me with an 11 th place finish, after being the one who complained the most about being sore after that morning’s TT. It was several hours later that I found out I had won the time trial over Gabriel by 37 seconds. He gained 3 seconds on me in the road race, but not nearly enough to put a dent in my advantage. When the call was made that Sunday’s races were cancelled, I was slightly relieved I didn’t have to defend my lead against those junior mountain goats (I now know how most people feel riding with me. Small, light people aren’t good for much of anything except making you feel like shit when they out-climb you with ease).
All in all, Ghisallo had a really strong showing last weekend, and there’s absolutely no way I would have claimed my first road race GC win without any of them. Lori competed in her first time trial and road race, claiming a solid 4th place in the women’s 4 field. Jesse claimed a top 10 in the GC with 10 th place overall, and Jack rounded out the top 20 (20th place). Christopher, well, he ate a pretty formidable amount of cheese and did some officiating on the side.