Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Inexperienced at Madera

Cyclists from every corner of the globe share a deep appreciation for the Grand Tours, no matter how dope ridden they may be. The challenge of competing in a long stage race day after day and in different events is one that requires incredible fitness, skill in a variety of cycling disciplines, an extremely high pain threshold, and mental fortitude that would make Yoda proud. I had done the day after day (and night after night) thing fairly successfully, chugging through the French countryside during PBP, half comatose with a cadence of sixty something on the endless rollers of Brittany, powered by a fairly constant recovery heart rate that would spike to LE on a hard effort.

A stage race would be different: shorter, more intense, and varied. For the graying, lowly Cat5, a ‘Tour’ of anything is out of reach, but there is the Madera Stage Race, a two-day event in the Central Valley of California that has all the basic ingredients: criterium, time trial, and road race.

The Criterium: admittedly, I have an aversion to crits. Seems like every crit I’ve ever watched (and there’ve been quite a few) involved an ambulance at some point. Aversion breeds avoidance, thus the Madera Stage Race Criterium turned out to be my first crit. We all line up, but the race is running behind schedule. Instead of worrying about the beneficial effects of my ‘sophisticated’ warm-up behind a parked trailer truck evaporating with time, I start talking to the guys right next to me. Amazingly they’ve both climbed before, one at Pipeworks, and pretty soon we’re passing time reminiscing about routes at Lover’s Leap. Who needs warm-up anyway?!

The crit is pretty basic: 40 minutes, flat, wide, smooth pavement, four corners, one bumpy railroad track, and a good dose of speed. It’s a great first crit: for the most part people hold their line and look out for each other. Riders shout, point, motion, and pat, mostly in a friendly way. The Juniors are pretty solid, the pace around 25mph. The pack stays together, the surges out of corners are forgiving, and there’s always a bit of a rest on the East side of the loop. I sit in and get sucked along. A few riders duel for time bonuses, but the pack stays together – there are no breaks. Everyone seems content and acutely aware that this is just one stage in this race, a stage that will give most riders the same time at the bunch finish. On the last lap I’m somewhere around 15th and contemplating moving up. It would have been easy to jump five or six spots on the inside between the railroad tracks and last corner, but at what cost? My lack of experience left me wondering and I stayed conservative, easing up, eating wind, and getting passed on the way to the finish line. One down, two to go.

The Time Trial: this was my third weekend of racing in a row. Sometime between Orosi and Ward’s Ferry, I won an eBay auction for a ‘TT bike.’ It was cheap, the dimensions seemed acceptable, and I would finally reap the benefits of slicing through the wind, instead of wrestling with it. If only the darn thing would just show up at my door step. Emergency email to fellow Touchstoners – no replies! None! Panic!!! Riding my Roubaix without aero bars would vanquish the slicing wind dream – not acceptable! Putting clip-ons on the Roubaix would surely doom me to instant carbon handlebar failure (insert picture of Hincape eating dirt instead of winning Paris-Roubaix - fine it was the aluminum steerer, not carbon bars, but you get the picture) – not a good option, but worth consideration. Take my wife’s bike and put clip-on bars on her aluminum bars – hmmm…. That might work, but would be a bit crunched. I rotate for a day (a few days before Madera) and the magic ‘TT’ bike shows up in the afternoon. It’s beat and has been crashed, has a road geometry, but works for the most part AND comes with an aero helmet that would make fans of Styx and Foreigner proud. Ken (thank you, thank you, thank you!!!) from Touchstone/Wrench Science fixes the thing as best as possible and I take the new beast for a spin on San Pablo Dam, the only ‘flat’ real estate nearby. The front end feels worse than a jackrabbit running from a coyote, but it’s an individual TT, so I’ll only hurt myself. Toward the end of my six-mile test ride the bike quiets down and I feel more comfortable. I walk away with a couple of distinct impressions: my heart rate is a good 20+ beats lower for the same speed and in corners I dearly miss the brake/shifter combo of my road bike.

It is hot at the Sharon TT, just East of Chowchilla, CA. My Polar HRM reads consistent temperatures in the mid- 90’s. I may not have any TT experience, but I’ve learned to suffer in the heat. The Terrible Two in 2006 was hot, well over 100 degrees on Skaggs, and I was in fair shape while the glassy-eyed lined the side of the road. Riding in 90+ degrees for 7 or so hours on the 2007 Devil Mountain Double was much, much harder, but I still managed to get to the finish… I sacrifice the planned warm-up on the trainer for a horizontal spot among the shade provided by nearby almond trees. Only a handful of racers chose to warm-up on the trainer.

Fifteen minutes before my 2:16pm start time I head out on the road for a quick spin that includes a couple of 30-second accelerations. Not ideal, but it’ll have to do. At the start I put a foot down, opting for security over the jump provided by having both feet clipped in and someone holding on to my seat. The start is slow and discouraging, 21-22 mph, but then I get more comfortable and cruise along at 24-25 mph, passing my 30-second man at about the 4 mile mark. It’s Dean, the guy from Pipeworks, a nice fellow and very solid wheel. He’s out there with no aero bars, riding his hoods. ‘Get in the drops man, get in the drops.’ My right pedal unclips as I hit one of the many grooves running across the road with a jarring thud. I turn the second corner and suddenly confront the wind. Things slow down, but the legs are still fine and the heart rate is steady and right where I want it. Unfortunately my minute man is nowhere in sight, on the other hand I’m not getting passed either. My ten miles are up - Two down, one to go…

I had not been sick in a long time, but the Tuesday before Madera I started getting a scratchy throat. By Thursday my sinuses felt ready to explode, during the pre-ride on Friday there was ‘stuff’ coming out of my nose, Saturday I lost my voice after the time trial, and by Sunday my chest had joined the party.

Before the road race I ask Pat for sage advice. She diplomatically disagrees with my last minute desperate acclimatization technique (keeping the windows up and AC off during the half hour drive to the start) and thinks that shade and no trainer is the way to go. Find out who’s right around you in the GC and memorize their number. I head off to seek shade at the results table and find out that going into the road race I’m 13th in the GC and that there are 37 riders (of 46?) left. Sweet! Despite the exploding head and oozing nose and lungs, the legs feel fine. The crit and TT didn’t take that much out of me. The goal is top 10 in the GC!

The Road Race – after another fairly lengthy wait at the start we promenade up to the actual race. Three 17-mile laps (actually a bit shorter). It is immediately apparent that the pack stability experienced during the crit is gone. Riders are in and out, the pace surges and slows, and this is just the promenade. Four minutes into the actual race there is a crash in the middle of the field. On a flat section of road, cruising along at a relatively moderate speed! The pack stays jittery for the remainder of the lap and we all curse the stretch of rough road, the ‘cobbles.’ It’s not continuous, but it goes on intermittently for about 4 miles. There’s little cohesion in terms of what to do. Some are out of the saddle, some on. Some are pedaling, some are not. Some hit the ruts and potholes head-on, others jerk the wheel at the last second. It’s no fun… Out of the crud and into the rollers. I’m surprised at how the pack slows at the first big hill, are they saving their legs or are they shot? Most likely a bit of both.

Our group is still well together and settles down a bit on the second lap, until we hit the cobbles again. Attack! The guy comes from somewhere in the back and bounces around on the left side. We watch him move to the front and start accelerating. He gets a small gap, which gets closed quickly. One hard minute and it’s all over. Suddenly I can barely turn my cranks. I look down to see if I’ve flatted. It doesn’t seem like it, but I can’t look too long. I slow, the pack keeps moving. I stop, the pack grows distant. My front left brake pad is stuck to my wheel. I open up the calipers and start riding again. Note to self: you can kiss that top 10 GC spot goodbye. Addendum: when you flat the cranks still keep turning. My inexperience becomes crystal clear as I chase across the rest of the cobbles. Getting closer. The big roller gives me another opportunity, but I’m still down 60-70 yards by the time the tail of the pack crests and done by the time I get to the top. It’s a familiar situation: time to sit down and pick up the pieces…

I catch the first guy, Eddie, at the very end of the 2nd lap. He’s pretty done, but with some encouragement and persuasion he agrees to work with me. We’ll do 20-30 second pulls, going at our own pace. We stay together and catch another rider half way through the lap. He’s in a bit worse shape, but contributes some short pulls. Finally he complains of back problems and drops off on the cobbles. The Pro/1/2/3 women pass us. Ouch! I see a blur of four Touchstone jerseys! We pick up a group of three just before the rollers and one more on the big roller. They have a hard time staying with us and drop back a little, but not too far. The finish is near. I really appreciated Eddie’s efforts on this last lap and decide we should go across the line together. However, I don’t want the rest of the guys behind us to beat us. As we crest the big roller, they’re nipping at our wheels. One last roller - a rider passes us. Eddie tells me to go for it and I put the hammer down…

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