Monday, February 18, 2008

Pine Flat Road Race, 2/17/2008

Pine Flat Register Press Release, Sunday February 17th:

Team Bicycle Trip puts power house Jim Langley off the front for a full third of the 3 hour hilly Pine Flat Road Race. Gaining valuable TV time for team sponsor Bicycle Trip, Jim proudly displayed the team kit solo off the front for an hour. In the post race interview that never happened, Scott Hennessey might have said "Jim's unstable… I mean… he's crazy… I'm a National Time Trial Champion, where’s the respect? It took myself and 3 powerful allies an hour to chase him down, and what did he do when we caught him? He ATTACKED! He’s a menace to the established peloton paradigm. Sanctions must be considered."

Whew… talk about a wild ride. Jim, Scott, Matt, and myself headed to Fresno this past Saturday to test the 2008 road race scene. After a memorable night in the Motel 6 adjacent to Hwy 99 and Southern Pacific Railroad’s main North American hub (not to mention car alarms, slamming doors, loud talking, all night arrivals/departures – and, oh yea, the 1:34 AM wake up call that my truck had been hit in the parking lot) we rolled out at 6:00 AM Sunday to Pine Flat reservoir. The road closure and detour temporarily had us worried, but we soon found our way to the Kings River and started following it up to the reservoir. It was a beautiful ride, but a bit cold, ranging from 35 to 41 degrees.

We were warming up in circles in the small picnic area when Scott, Matt, and Jim noticed my rear brake was rubbing. Jim had his tools out in an instant and spent the next 15 minutes working to free up my rear wheel. He used every trick in the book, eventually getting it 98% corrected. A rubbing brake wasn’t what I wanted to be thinking about, but I was thankful Jim was there to get me rolling.

The race starts with a neutral promenade out of the picnic area up to the road. "UP" being the key word! This half mile section must have been a 10% grade. Several riders were dropped before the race started. I really felt for those guys, they had another 4+/- hours of solo riding ahead of them.

Once on the main road we took off, the course started with a rolling out and back 22 mile section skirting the edge of the lake. The pace was very civilized and we all talked, joked, and responded to the occasional surge.

After passing the start line we hit our first extended climb, several guys got into trouble here. Jim and I were comfortably tucked into the top 15, Scott turned himself inside out to hold my wheel, and Matt found himself in trouble. Fortunately the climb was followed by a fun extended 40 mph descent all the way to the Valley floor. The majority of the peloton came back together in short order.

Once on the Valley floor, it was apparent that the group wasn’t anymore interested in setting a hard pace than they’d been the first 30 miles. Clearly the big guns were planning to sit in until the final 30 minutes of climbing to sort out who’d stand on the top podium step.

Planning…. Until Jim took a wild flyer off the front 32 miles from the finish.

I was sitting closest to the front when Jim jumped. No one responded, so I moved to the front, got into an aero position to feign chasing, and set a pace just below Jim's. After about two minutes several guys decided to give chase. I jumped on their wheel and, as soon as they tired of the hunt, got back on the front and slowed the group again. This time I stayed on the front for around 5 minutes. Jim's gap was substantial and the group wasn't biting, so I drifted back to ask Scott to take the front and keep the pace down. In the mean time, Matt had been watching me and went to the front to disrupt the flow. After Scott had done a turn or two at the front you could sense the nervousness growing.

VOS had a very strong team and came in intending to win. Scott Hennessey was designated to chase Jim down. Twice he jumped out of the group, and twice I sat on him until he gave up. But on his third try I was elsewhere in the peloton and he got away with three others. At this point Jim had been out of sight for quite a while, and in the flat Central Valley, that’s a pretty good lead.

Scott, Matt, and I continued to sit in, unwilling to assist in chasing down our teammate. I was worried about Jim out there for so long on his own, knowing this was a long shot strategy, but Jim’s strong, if anyone could pull this off it would be Jim.

Also sitting in the peloton was Jon Ornstil (VOS) and Carl Nielson (Wells Fargo), I viewed these two guys as the favorites and stayed very close to them. Carl was working, but Jon was in the same position as me. He had a teammate away and wasn’t going to help pull him back.

At mile 51 the first big climb started. At this point we figured the breakaway was either going to make it or not on their own. So, it was time to race! To steal a phrase from Scott "when the big dogs bite, it hurts." And hurt it did. Within moments our group was down to six, minutes later it was five. As we neared the top of the big climb Carl and Leon (VOS) had a gap on Jon, a forth rider was off Jon's wheel with me trailing behind. I mustered a final effort to close the gap to the forth rider as we crested the big climb. There's a five mile valley after the big climb to the file 1.5 mile climb to the finish line. With a massive effort the five of us were back together just before the final climb started.

Jon, Leon, and the "forth" rider attacked hard. Carl popped and I was soloing behind the 3 leaders. To my surprise, Jon popped next. Wow! He’s human. Next the "forth" rider popped, cool. Leon was way too strong to catch, but finishing in the company of these amazing riders made the whole experience an unqualified success.

What happened to Jim? Well, he was caught just before the big climb and was able to hang for the entire climb. Pretty darn impressive after an hour off the front. In the valley he got popped, but managed to hang on to fifth place, crossing the line just a head of Leon and I. Matt and Scott rolled across the line a little while later, pleased with their contribution to the team effort and a nice boost of confidence placing so well in a very tough field.

Mark Edwards

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