58 Miles is Enough to Find Weakness
Hillsboro is a hard race. For the last 2 seasons (as long as I've been racing), it's been my worst finish each year. May it be so this year.
Larry, the Patron, drove his race wagon down with 5 of us scheming and snacking for 2 hours. It was a fun time and part of what makes racing on a team enjoyable.
The conditions were very nice, with temps in the 70's and a 10+ mph wind out of the south.
The course was elongated from the previous year, adding about 6 miles per lap. The 4's race then, at 2 laps and 58 miles, is by far the longest race of the season for me. This will come into play below.
120 guys. Wow. It was the biggest field I've raced in. XXX lined up with 16 or so guys. Unfortunately all the XXX guys I know are 3's now, and these boys were not at thier level (yet). The usual Chicago based teams were there (Tati, Beverly, Cuttin Crew, Psimet, etc). I don't really know the St. Louis based teams but they had to have been there to get 120 cat 4's.
We had 6 guys toeing the line for Wild Card: Razzle Dazzle (in white shorts no less!), Tom, Sweet Pea, Ragfield, Luke, and myself. Dazzle and Tom were rolling well last week and after a team vote, they'd be protected riders. Luke, Sweet P, and I would chase breaks and initiate moves on the second lap. Ragfield would babysit and leadout.
With the crosswinds and narrow roads shaping the race, we decided to give it some gas as a team after the first climb, thereby giving us about a mile till the first turn, into a tailwind section. If we could safely get through that tailwind/roller section, we would evaluate the damage after the next turn, in a tree protected crosswind. If we had a gap, TTT time. (That would be TTTT, I suppose.) If the bunch was together, we would stay to the front, protect the protected ones, and on the second lap start relay attacking. If that didn't work, we would line it out about 4 miles out and let the protected riders duke it out with whomever was left.
[Caution, pedal stroke by pedal stroke commentary. You shouldn't care enough to read this, but here you are.]
We rode according to plan, getting a second row start position, and staying in the top 20 wheels as a team for the first couple of miles. We pushed the pace through the crosswind section after the first hill, per our plan, and then kept it hot during the tailwind section. As we turned the corner, I swung wide and looked back to see a VERY long line of riders. We had not split the group. Or if we had it was only momentarily. I had definitely burned a match during this time, so I was glad we relinquished the front and kept ourselves near the pointy end, should crosswinds come into play.
With frequent peeks over my shoulder I knew the protected riders were in good position. Although, at one point, we looked around and didn't see Razzle Dazzle. After querying the boys, nobody knew where he was. I asked Sweet Pea to drop back, find him, and tow him up. I was very glad to see him do just that. At that moment I decided I would work for that kid in a race this season. If he's willing to do what the "road captains" say, bravo boy. You've earned my respect.
The rest of the first lap was uneventful in this way, no serious moves rolled off the front and though I had to work to do so, I stayed in the top 10 wheels. I was very relieved when we came into the penultimate climb for the lap, which was "neutral" for the feed. I was feeling the effort of the climb, and I expected the pace to stay high through the zone. My thinking was: no "attacking" but my tempo doesn't have to be slow! However, everyone around me took it down a notch. Whew. Being the fat kid I am, I was glad to not climb at race pace. Things ramped up on the next hill however, but I was close enough to the front, and worked hard enough, I crossed the start finish (yay, just 29 miles to go!) in fourth position. This is in marked contrast to last year when I was suffering terribly at this point, and got dropped from the group 2 miles later.
Per our team plan, Luke attacked in the first crosswind section after the turn. However everyone was thinking the same thing: "it's lap 2, don't let anyone go." Furthermore, Luke had demonstrated during the first lap shake-down that he could hold a high pace at the front. Maybe it was the aero-booties that tipped them off. Regardless, the group surged and caught him. The pre-race plan said that Sweet Pea would attack next, but as I looked around from 10th wheel, I didn't see him. I didn't feel great but I knew I had to counter-attack to make Luke's attack worthwhile. Such are the indellible laws of cycling: you always counter your team's marked moves! So I jumped hard, and we happened to be starting the first hill out of town. The effort was the same as a jump for a townline sprint, and as I gasped for breath I looked back to see if anybody came with me. I was crushed to see I was by myself but with a decent gap (100 meters?). I had a moment where I considered slinking back to the pack. In that moment I actually thought of other riders laughing at me, as I just burned a match in vain. Vain is the key word, as I'm such an approval junkie that I was actually thinking of how I'd be welcomed into the peloton. I turned back to the crest of the hill and crosswind, and began to stomp out a rythm. If they wanted me, they'd have to work to get me.
Well, somebody wanted to join the party, as soon enough a shorter chap on a Scott in a red and blue kit (team/sponsor MEC?) rolled up beside me. We exchanged no words, just pulls at about 18-20 mph. I could tell he wasn't feeling great as he would let it drop down to 17-18 mph, and I encouraged him to keep the pace high, relatively speaking. At around this time we must have looked convincing enough as a viable breakaway (I am shocked, really!) but 3 more guys (a big Tati rider on a Storck, a shorter guy from Psimet, and a taller guy from Momentum Racing) bridged up and we turned the corner into the tailwind section.
The Tati rider (John) helped the pace immediately and provided a better draft. We were talking at the front just before the turn and he almost missed it! With the tailwind I put down a long hard pull, thinking we should exagerate the gap as much as possible while the going was easy. (In retrospect, this might have been a mistake. I think it helped our gap on the field at that point, but perhaps I went too deep into the red as you'll soon read.) After my pull I went to the back, but 2 of the riders couldn't decide if they should get on the wheel or not. By the time I found a wheel, a gap had opened and we were chasing back on. My original break companion was dropped in this mix. It sure would have been nice to have another rider to share the load with. Soon after the turn the Momentum rider was dropped as well. I don't remember this specifically, but it was quickly just the three of us: John Whipple (Tati), Tim Speciale (Psimet) and your's truly (Wild Card).
John was driving the break and coaching us all the while: "keep it smooth guys, we need a steady pace; c'mon guys, we need to go faster - they're chasing back there!; let's keep it up, they're hurting too!" Not only was he taking longer pulls than Tim and I, he was giving us positive thoughts.
Tim at this point was swerving a little. It was clear he was digging deep. I was starting to have lower back pain followed by spasms. This is the same thing that happened to me 13 miles into my first road race and at Hillsboro last year. It is my weakness. I came off the back of the group twice and the guys waited for me. That's right, my competitors waited for me in the break. I couldn't believe these guys. Then again, another body to block the wind is priceless when you're on the rivet late in the race, so it wasn't altruism. I took it as a class jesture though, and thanked them when I rejoined, saying: "If I'm at the finish, I won't contest the sprint." And in saying this I resigned myself to 3rd place - or worse.
Perhaps this was my undoing as soon my back attacked me again and I fell off the pace. Into the headwind I pushed, stretched, and worked some more. I watched as John and Tim rode away. They soon realized my absence (after John had taken yet another 3 min. pull) and as I found out afterwards, they considered waiting YET AGAIN, but didn't. I can't blame them, I'm just frustrated with myself that I couldn't push that last percent to maintain contact. In the hours since I linger on the thought that I gave up and called it quits. Did I? Did I have more and just say: "This isn't worth it?" At some level I have to admit that I did. I was measured in that moment and found wanting - I didn't have it. Whether it was the core strength, the aerobic stamina, or the mental durability, or all three - I didn't have it. This is eating at me. Was it because I no longer had my sights on first place? Who get's motivated to race for third?
I continued on at a pace that allowed some recovery but kept me rolling. As I looked back I saw the peloton get closer and bigger. Despite this, the startling thing was how small it had become actually. Trimmed down from the same wind and hills that had wracked me, the chase group was less than 30 strong.
I started waving at the group in hopes that my team would recognize my colors and initiate the chase (rather than continue blocking) but it was not the case. Luke greeted me with: "I blew myself up blocking for you!" And that was it. Not only had I failed myself, I had burned my teamates up. Like a town drunk I began ranting about how John was the only one doing work in the break and his teamate is softpedaling on the front, and he's only 1 minute up the road. Nobody upped the pace, they were content to sit in, they were racing for third. Could I blame them?
Sweet Pea had popped a tire soon after I attacked (18-22 miles ago) and Rob had popped physically during the course of the race. Tom and Razzle looked good, aparently still waiting to pounce.
If there was a time to kick off the chase, it was then, while there was still time I assumed, so I went to the front. As I came up the right side I heard someone say: "He's blown." No matter, I thought, I'll give what I've got since Tati is doing his job of blocking. In the Druber style I took a glory pull. The pace went up and when I flicked the elbow, Tati pulled through with a big grin and the pace wound down at the base of a small hill. On that knoll I popped again and sat up for the remainder of the race, finishing in 30th place. Which, out of 120 isn't so bad. But oh, what could have been.
As a team we worked very well the first lap and great until I was caught on the second lap. No doubt the blocking that Wild Card and Tati foisted upon the bunch allowed such a large gap for the breakaway. We still have some work to do in communicating position (so as to avoid my near-constant rearward glancing), and I need to have a lot more sense about what kind of pulling to do both early and late in the race.
Razzle Dazzle managed a sixth place finish, and Tom rolled in 11th. The pace was hot up the final hills I'm told, and the remaining bunch was properly shattered. I'm happy I could work for team-mates and in the process have a go at the podium myself. The thing that is most startling is that Frenchy, the fat sprinter type, had a viable shot in a long, hilly, road race - his weak event. Next time guys! Next time!
Larry continued to sheppard us while listening to our whining and showered us with encouragement as he packed up our bikes and shewed us towards recovery drinks.
My big consolation is the faith that once given enough recovery, hard efforts only make you stronger. To that end I smile, and look forward to the Tour of Hermann.