This is a big race on the calendar, but I'd never raced it before. This year I decided to give it a try as I thought it might suit a small sprinter like me. The 11.7-mile course is on gently rolling hills (roughly 500 feet of climbing per lap), set in the foothills of the Sierras north of Merced with a slight uphill finish (as revealed by my MotionBased GPS research!). Plus, I was reunited with former Team Santa Cruz teammate Steve Rosen who also wanted to enter my 45+ open-category race, and carpool too, so that made the decision easier. Team Bicycle Trip was well represented in two races: Bryan King and Ed Price entered the earlier Elite 4 race with five laps, at 8:05 a.m., while our race started at 12:35 p.m., riding four laps. That gave Steve and I some extra sleep, and fewer miles!
But the weather, well, the weather made me reconsider. I read the forecasts, from every source I could think of, in the days and hours leading up to this race. It didn't look so good, with talk of 70 mph gusts, heavy rain and flooding in areas. The storm was due to hit in the afternoon, so I started wishing I was racing in the early group instead, extra sleep be hanged!
On race day I had a light scramble for breakfast before Steve arrived at my house (at 7:15). I brought my nice, clean-enough-to-eat-on Giant TCR C2 and my old aluminum beater bike so I could choose either depending on the weather at the race. I really wanted to ride the Giant, because the carbon-fiber frame would make the notoriously bumpy roads of this course smoother and faster. But I didn't want to mess the bike up if the rain was blowing horizontally either.
En route we got some light rain, and strong wind, but not enough to dissuade us. We stopped for a second breakfast at Casa de Fruta (having two breakfasts in one day is, well, like heaven!). Only a little heavier on the carbs this time, as it was still four hours before our race start: More eggs, plus ham, hash browns and a biscuit.
Snelling is north of Merced in a beautiful, green expanse of meadows, fields and creeks, with the snow-capped Sierras as a backdrop. When we got to the race venue in tiny Snelling, we signed in and decided to sit in the car to stay warm as long as possible, because the 15 mph wind from the southeast was chilly. Mark and we had traded some ideas on tactics and we all knew the wind would be a factor; creating gaps with every turn. I ate a banana like a condemned man's last meal.
While we were suiting up Bryan jumped out at us; he and Ed had just finished their race, and while Ed had flatted on the second lap, Bryan had finished strong. They both gave us tips on the course and how much to wear. We both went with arm- and leg-warmers, vests and shoe covers. I worried that it wouldn't be enough if it started raining hard, but I didn't want to overheat if it didn't either. I also decided to ride my Giant because the weather was OK, and I didn't see any huge rainstorms on the horizon. I did worry about my low rolling-resistance Michelins because they flat more easily, but you can't have everything and on this rough course smooth tires would help a lot.
Both of my water bottles filled with energy drink, we lined up for our start, getting colder by the minute. I didn't bother warming up because of that, and because we had a promenade, and who needs warmup anyway? We watched for the biggest threats that we'd identified from the list of registered athletes (the field was full at 50, with another 61 on the waiting list!):
503: Chris Black, Morgan-Stanley
520: Phillip Hellman, Colavita/Sutterhome-Norcal
524: Kevin Metcalfe, Team Specialized Racing
528: Jon Ornstil, VOS Racing 546: Mark VandenBerghe, Wells Fargo Racing Team
549: Kevin Willitts, Alta Alpina Cycling Club
But Chris Black and Kevin Metcalfe never did show, and probably many others because of the dire weather forecasts, and #520 wasn't Philip Hellman (I thought he might be Marco Hellman's brother!), but Phil Heiman, who I knew from crits, but the others were there, plus Mark Caldwell, Morgan-Stanley, and a few I didn't know well enough to fear. I remembered Jon Ornstil from my first 45+ race, the 2006 Early Bird Road Race in Patterson Pass, where he was clearly a confident and fast racer. I remembered in particular how he would attack, then sit up and look back at us to see who was still there, and who was suffering most.
After our promenade behind the Course Marshall on his motorcycle through rustic Snelling we entered the closed course, and... the attacks started on the very first straightaway! No surprise. I held on for each surge and worked my way forward in the strong crosswind. Some small hills threatened to spit guys out the back, as others jumped up them. In the curvy section that followed going north we had a tailwind, but on the small hill there another attack opened several gaps that caught Steve and half the peloton out, and they were soon dropped. I was up front so I was in a good position to respond. On the back straight (nicely repaved recently but still somewhat bumpy) we sat up and formed echelons, though not rotating ones, in the crosswind from our right front. I'd guess some guys caught back on, partly because we caught some stragglers from the Pro 1/2/3 race and had to try to keep separated. Eventually the Course Marshall rode up and split us up, and after a half lap the Pros all took off.
We passed the finish line with 3 laps to go which gave me a chance to scope out the finish: We had the last sharp right turn, then about 400m up a slight hill that got steeper at the crest, all into the headwind. It turned out Bryan had stayed after Ed left, walked up there and was taping the race, cheering us on. Thanks Bryan!
Back on that first straight again, Ornstil attacked super-hard several times, each time sitting up and staring us down; I maxed out but I thought I could hold on and draft a bit, though it was touch-and-go. But I missed what then happened: It turns out several guys broke away with him and mixed with stragglers from the previous race. Willits chased but sat up when he saw he couldn't catch them. Cresting that hill with the tailwind this time was much easier... It took me a few minutes of asking questions to figure out why: The big teams, Morgan-Stanley, VOS and ICCC, all had guys in the break and their teammates were blocking for them! Stanley Terusaki of Morgan-Stanley told me to kick back and drink some water; I did! On the back straight I tried to stem my impatience and hoped a chase group would form. None did.
At the finish line, with 2 laps remaining, I pulled a bit, hoping it would motivate others. Eventually Roland Freund from Davis Bike Club, Willits, and Bob Parker of Alto-Velo/Webcor joined me, but the blockers did an awesome job of keeping us separated, disrupting our attempts to form a paceline to chase the break. I looked at who wasn't contributing and harassed the Alto-Velo teammate who didn't help Parker, but Parker said he was saving him... for the sprint? I doubt it; he didn't look the part and never did sprint. The guy from Allegiant Air/Vandenberghe Properties just sat in too like it was a cooldown lap. I guess nobody believed in our chances. The Course Marshall said it was 45 seconds to the break, then later it had increased to 2:08. I started doubting too.
On the 3rd lap I started to take more pulls, and even tried to bridge twice; once in the curvy section with a tailwind, once on the bumpy back straight. Both times I could feel myself weaken, and I then had a group of 18 guys chasing me. I gave up when I heard the gap was up to 3:30.
On the 4th lap I decided I would just contest the field sprint for a top-10 finish, and that tiring out the blockers was my best bet. I launched Ornstil-style attacks several times, as did Willits and Parker, and Freund a bit too. Then Parker attacked again, snapped the cord and time-trialed off the front with 3/4 lap to go. And held it!
I stopped pulling at 1/4 lap to go, drafted, and awaited the last turn. Two guys who had been blocking until then jumped about 600m before the turn while we surged from behind. We had debated which side of the road was best to take the last turn, but I launched hard on the left outside, passed the pack at +10 mph, skirting the ditch, my rear tire skittering through the turn, and passed the two guys who had jumped before the turn like they were standing still. My legs almost died in the headwind but I won the field sprint for 6th place! Sweet revenge!
Some of the blockers congratulated me, including Scott Calley, of VOS, who said my sprint looked scary. By that he meant that it looked daring, not reckless! Bryan, Steve and I shared stories, loaded up the car and went to see if results were posted. Velo Promo has really improved their system, and soon I was holding my hard-won T-shirt.
Darryl Smith, ICCC, got 1st, Caldwell 2nd, Ornstil 3rd, Jess Raphael of VOS 4th, and Parker got 5th. Smith won Snelling back in 2005, so we should have marked him too! (Results here.)
Driving home in the increasing storm, after stopping for a quick lunch in Merced, we talked endlessly about cycling. I guess we love the sport!