They say that failure is good for the soul. If that's true, then my soul is looking real good today... :)
I was a little apprehensive about entering the Masters 45+ open race at Snelling. In fact, I had originally signed up for the Masters 35+ 4/5 race, since I'm a new Cat 4 racer. But one of my teammates, Dennis Pedersen, said he was interested in doing Snelling this year (he had never done it before) and wanted to know if I'd join him in his race.
So, when Dennis suggested I race with him at Snelling, I thought about what happened at the Giro just a few months ago, where I got blown out big time by the likes of Kevin Metcalfe, Don Langley, and Chris Black. But the Giro was a crit - and in the 2 road races I had done last year (San Ardo and Henleyville), I had done just fine - and really enjoyed the road races so much more than the crits. I mistakenly thought that a Masters 45+ open road race would be much more tame than a Masters 45+ open crit (like the Giro di San Francisco).
So I accepted Dennis' challenge to join him at Snelling, and really thought the course would suit me well - no giant climbs, just some rollers - much like San Ardo or Henleyville - and a slight uphill finish, just like San Ardo - perfect!
And I had some additional data points that sent false signals to my brain - I had just done the Cantua Creek road race last weekend and managed to pull off a possible top 10 finish on a course that had an nice uphill finish (3 uphill rollers, in fact) - the results haven't been posted yet (typical Velo Promo), but you can read about that race right here. Of course, that was a Masters 45+ 4/5 race, and not an open race. It's amazing what a difference there is between "4/5" and "open" - in this case, "open" can easily be replaced by "1/2/3" - and you'd have a much fairer idea of the difference between the two categories of races...
Now, my game plan for the Snelling race was simple enough - just sit in the main pack, try to shadow Dennis as much as possible, conserve energy, don't respond directly to attacks - just follow the lead of the main pack and surge when they surge, rest when they rest. I figured a break might develop and get away, but it wouldn't have me in it - I'd be more than content for this group of animals to just finish in the main bunch at the end of the race. My goal was to just finish the race with the main pack - and I didn't really care if I was first or last. Well, if I had an opportunity to finish first, I'd certainly go for it - and Dennis and I discussed all kinds of strategy ideas, in conjunction with a lot of super ideas that Mark Edwards mentioned to both of us in a flurry of e-mails just before the weekend.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by what happened when the race got underway - when you enter an open Masters 45+ race, it consists of primarily cat 1, 2, and 3 racers that have simply lived for at least 45 years - but many of them aren't really all that much slower than their younger counterparts...
And our race had luminaries signed up that included the likes of Kevin Metcalfe of Team Specialized, Kevin Willitts of Alta Alpina, Chris Black from Morgan Stanley, Jon Ornstil and Jess Raphael from VOS Racing, and Shin Umeda and Robert Parker from Webcor / Alto Velo. Dennis and I affectionately refer to them as "mutants" - actually, most of them are very nice guys - but they almost always make a hard race nearly impossible, in the best of circumstances.
Additionally, the Morgan Stanley team had 4 guys entered, VOS Racing had 10 guys (out of just 50 total!), Webcor / Alto Velo had 5 guys, and the International Christian Cycling Club had 5 guys entered. So there were several large teams - and with all those very experienced - and very strong - cyclists on some of those bigger teams, it seemed that attacks and blocking would be the order of the day.
Well, the start of the race WAS a lot easier than the start of last year's Giro crit - but that's only because the first 3.5 miles of the race is a gentle promenade from the start of the race in the town of Snelling to the entry of the main 11.7-mile closed course loop - and the promenade is lead by a motorcycle (first time for me - pretty cool, I thought!). As we rolled through the neighborhoods of Snelling at a gentle 15 mph pace, everyone was chatting away and being very nice and civil to one another - I was feeling very good and very confident...
Yeah, this race was going to be a piece of cake - I'd just sit in the main pack for the whole race - staying towards the front as much as possible - then wait for that last 90-degree right turn that is a few hundred meters from the finish line, unleash my killer sprint, and get a nice top 10 placing...
Well, you know what they say - the best laid plans...
As soon as we hit the main course loop, there is a small climb - not more than 1/10 of a mile - but the pace - and my heartrate - shot up noticeably within just 1/4 mile after cresting that first little hill, which seemed like a major mountain the way everyone started screaming up the hill. I realized fairly quickly that this was definitely NOT a Masters 45+ 4/5 race - those races would have never launched into such a ferocious pace so quickly. Now I realize why I saw so many guys warming up on rollers an hour before the race started - they were the ones that just knew what was going to unfold in those opening minutes of the real race.
(Note to self: If I EVER do another Masters 45+ open race, get a good solid 30 minute warmup BEFORE the race starts...)
My system went into anaerobic shock as my heartrate climbed quickly up to my redline pace - beyond my normal time trial pace - I can hold my heartrate at about 160 bpm (my max heartrate is 175 bpm) for an hour, no problem. But if it climbs up into the 165 bpm to 170 bpm range, I can only hold that for 5 to 10 minutes.
After we crested that first small hill, the attacks unfolded - incessantly! First one guy would attack and go off the front - the main pack would quickly string out as the chase began - and this was with a healthy tailwind / crosswind at our back - the pace was so intense, there was essentially zero drafting effect - at least, for me - I was hanging on for dear life, just trying to stay in contact with the guy in front of me. Then, as soon as the guy who attacked was caught, the pack would slow down ever so slightly - but before you had a chance to recover, another guy - or sometimes, even the same guy that had just attacked, would repeat the insanity and we'd do it all over again.
As I found out later, this phenomenon is typical in a Masters 45+ open race - the big guns in the race make sure the opening miles are super hard, to shell out the weaker riders in that first 5 to 10 miles - this reduces the size of the pack and presumably increases their chances for placing higher at the end of the race - there could be some riders that have good sprints (like me, for example), but if those sprinters get shelled early, they won't be around at the end to contest the field sprint, if it comes down to that. Plus, a series of attacks can eventually lead to a successful breakaway, as was the case in our race.
I, however, didn't get to see all that unfold, as I was gasping for oxygen within the first 5 miles of the closed race course loop - about 8.5 miles into the entire race. I was keeping myself in contact with the main pack - barely - but I was doing okay, all things considered.
But then, on a small rise on the backside of the main course, there was yet another set of attacks that finally formed a small gap between me and the 2 guys in front of me - and they had let a small gap form in front of them, too - so now there were a couple of gaps for me to close.
I quickly closed down the gap to the 2 guys in front of me, and we now had a threesome - and I was hoping we could work together and catch back onto the main pack. We tried to form a paceline to do just that - but all of us were dead tired and were not doing much to close the gap - we weren't falling further behind, but we weren't gaining, either.
Then there was this hard right-hand turn that took us from a crosswind situation into a direct headwind condition - and that's when it all fell apart. One of the guys simply sat up and said he was done - this other guy and I decided to continue to press on - but not for long. My partner was stronger than me - and his pulls were longer and harder than my pulls. I think he eventually figured out I wasn't really helping him much - so he suddenly sprinted away and dropped me after I took one of my hardest pulls - I was way too tired to go after him and grab his wheel, so I just watched helplessly as he motored up the road - he wasn't going that much faster than me, but fast enough that I was slowly losing ground to him - and with that incredible headwind - it felt like a 20 mph to 30 mph wind - it was getting increasingly demoralizing, being out there all alone.
Then I hit the really awful stretch of bumpy road that you ride along for about 2 miles - it's the most difficult spot on the course - the road is so bumpy and horrible, it's dead straight - so it looks like it goes on forever - and you have this rotten headwind/crosswind condition that keeps blasting away at you, reminding you how insignificant you are, compared to Mother Nature...
Finally, I hit the 90-degree right turn that is the beginning of a 300 to 400 meter stretch of road with a small hill that takes you to the finish line area at the top of the hill - I limped by the finish line area going only 12 or 13 mph up that small hill - about 5 mph slower than the main pack would be doing it, I thought. I heard Bryan King near the finish area, filming me on video as I passed by, offering a word or two of encouragement.
It's really depressing to be on that course all by yourself, knowing the main pack is now a mile or two ahead, and increasing the distance between you and them with every turn of the pedals. I started onto the 2nd lap, determined to press on anyway. But after going just a few miles into the 2nd lap, I decided I was done for the day. I think when you get demoralized, your legs feel just a little heavier than they really are - but it really doesn't matter. When your mind says you're done, you're done. I was done.
I turned around at that point and headed back to take myself off the course, near the area where we had entered the closed course loop. A race official took my number and relayed by radio that I was a DNF and I crawled back to the car, which Bryan had so graciously parked right near the course for us - he had raced in the morning with Ed Price, in the Cat 4 race - and had done quite well - he thinks he got about 20th or 25th in a huge pack of 100 original starters - great job, Bryan!
Our pack, which started with 50, also got whittled down - I understand about 1/2 of our pack pulled themselves out within the first 2 laps - so I took a small consolation that I was not alone - but it still bothered me that I had not been able to hold onto the main pack and at least finish the race - even dead last in the bunch sprint would have been a victory for me, considering the quality of the competition.
Dennis, on the other hand, did great! A small breakaway of about 4 guys got away about halfway through the race - then their respective teams all blocked for them. Dennis and a few other guys tried to get the pack chasing, but were unsuccessful. Then one guy got off the front during the last lap and time-trialed his way into 5th place - the 4 guys in the original breakaway dropped one of the guys early on, but he managed to time-trial his way around the course to finish 4th. For the bunch sprint, Dennis was able to hold off the entire rest of the pack (about 18 guys), and took 1st in the field sprint, for a very-well deserved 6th place, and one of those coveted Velo Promo t-shirts (the top 6 get a t-shirt with the name of the race on it). Good job, Dennis! I just wish I was there with you at the end of race.
Oh well, even in failure you can learn a lot about yourself - what to do next time, and certainly, what NOT to do, too! In my case, I think I'll stay away from the Masters 45+ open races until I've made myself into a stronger racer - maybe by the end of this racing season, and hopefully by the beginning of next year, for sure...
- Steve Rosen