Monday, March 24, 2008

Copperopolis Road Race Report

Milton, California 3/22/2008 - ideal racing conditions

By Mark Edwards (with notes from Jim Langley, Ed Price, Geoff Drake and Scott Martin at the end)

Photo by Dan Merrick

Copperopolis. The mere name strikes fear into the hearts of road racers. And with good reason, this is one tough race. From the early days of cycling, road racing has been a test of man versus the elements. The Spring Classics and Grand Tours are prime examples of just how far the human spirit can go in the face of extreme adversity.

Copperopolis is arguably Northern California’s best attempt to replicate the hardships inherent in the great European races. Races for the hardmen.

Geoff, Jim, Scott, and I distracted ourselves with stories of crashes, kids, and training as we made the long drive from Santa Cruz, arriving a bit over an hour before our start times to a collection of some of the best West Coast road racers.

We signed in and started our warm-up. I usually describe the race course pavement as similar to the really bumpy part of upper Highland (top of Eureka Canyon). Only in Copperopolis, it goes on for miles. First timers generally smile knowingly. 10 minutes into our warm-up Geoff turns to me and says, “This is way worse than I imagined”.

Geoff and I went off first in the 45+ 1,2,3 at 11:05, followed by Scott, then Jim. Scott and Jim would be subjected to 2 laps on this meat tenderizer of a course, while Geoff and I were to be treated to 3 laps, for 63 miles of California cobble.

My main concern for this race was hanging with the leaders over the first big climb. I’m not sure, either all those hill repeats are working, or the climbers were feeling charitable? Either way, Geoff and I went over the top with about 30 of the 40 starters. The long plateau following the first climb was filled with attacks and counter attacks. The group wasn’t letting anything go. We did leave a couple of guys hanging off the front for extended periods, but never let them gain more than a couple of hundred meters.

Our second run up the big climb was more like riding a pogo stick than a bike. As my legs had fatigued some, I wasn’t as able to absorb the jolts as efficiently. Once again the pace was manageable for most of the group. We crested with about 20 guys. Surprisingly, Larry Nolan was still with us. Not to take anything from Larry, besides a World Champion Track guy, he’s a smart and strong road racer. Watching him propel more muscle up that hill than any two riders’ possess together, gained instant respect from all us skinny types. He was given lots of encouragement, which he probably didn’t hear over his breathing. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone breathe that hard for that long. More power to him.

The third time up the hill was strangely consistent with the first two times, but it took its toll. 11 would go over the top together, 3 would get gapped (but back on within 5 minutes), and the rest wouldn’t be seen again. Geoff was part of the chase group of 3. I wasn’t sure of his chances of getting back on, I was bummed. It had been fun riding with him. But, no sooner than I’d started morning the loss, did I feel a hand on my back. Geoff was back!

Again there were repeated attacks. Of which it seemed we’d chased them all down. We were about 5 miles from the finish when the peloton was taking a breather (in other words, no one wanted to work). As we fanned across the road, myself, Geoff, and another guy were at the front. I heard a comment behind me that there was a group off the front. WHAT? You’ve got to be kidding. I thought I was paying attention, I couldn’t believe this was going to play out just like last year.

I decided instantly that this wasn’t going to be the way this race was going to go. I commented out load “let’s go get ‘em.” Geoff went right to the front and took a pull. He was pulling off to the left just as we came into a 90-degree right hand turn. I wasn’t planning an attack, but I did want to kick things up a notch, so I dove deep into the corner and accelerated. I stayed in the saddle, but I was putting decent pressure to the pedals. After about 10 pedal strokes I looked over my shoulder to get the next guy to pull through.

Guess what? Yep, no one was there. I couldn’t believe it, those dorks! Come on guys, didn’t you come here to race? So I put my head down and put in another 20 seconds hard, still no one chased. Crap! Now what do I do? So I went a little farther, still no chase.

Now, when I’d decided to go after the breakaway they were about ½ mile ahead. Way too far to bridge, but not too far for the peloton to pull back with some effort. But solo? Do I sit up? Do I keep going?

I had about 400 meters on the peloton and 400 to the break when it dawned on me that Geoff was blocking for me (I wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad J). So I took it right to the point I’d hoped I could hold for several more minutes.

The second climb on the course starts with about a ¼ mile ramp, levels of for an 1/8 mile, then climbs pretty good for another mile. As I was going up the ramp I could finally see who was in the break. Mark Caldwell and Neal Stoughton. Oh great! Now what? Probably the two most experienced and accomplished racers out there. And here I am, my first 1,2,3 race and I just bridged solo into a headwind for 10 minutes. These guys were going to have me for lunch.

I was coming up on them fast. What was that about? Were they resting? Only to blow me up on the climb? I’m getting closer…what do I do? Get on their wheel? Go by them?

At the last minute I decided to go right by, they jumped and caught my wheel (in hind sight, I should have attacked, ultimately I think they were both pretty fried). So now they’re on my wheel. What do I do?

Well, I can try an play cat and mouse with two of the best in the business, maybe beat one or both in the sprint. A big maybe. Or maybe we screw around and the peloton (yea, they’re still back there chasing) catches us and I take my chances with 13 other guys (many that I’ve never beat before). I decide that a guaranteed 3rd, or better, in such a prestigious race would be my biggest cycling accomplishment yet. So, I’m going to just pull like crazy.

Now, I was well aware I was delivering these guys to the finish fresh, but I wasn’t going to make it easy. I attacked and got a 10’ gap, they closed it. So, I attacked again, same result. Then, as the top of the climb came into view, I attacked again. They held on, but there was some pretty heavy breathing happening behind me. As I went over the top, knowing the eventual outcome, I gave it my all. Big ring, pedaling all the way down that crazy bumpy, twisty, narrow descent. They might be sucking my wheel, but they were going to have to work for it.

At 1 KM to going I went into TT mode again. I knew they were resting, but didn’t like my other options. At about 300 meters I attacked. Too far, but I’d hoped that I’d coax them into going too early and maybe surprise them at the finish. They came around me at 150 meters and I tried to chase. The snap was gone from my legs, but they were fading too. I pulled back onto their wheel as we crossed the line. Neal, Mike, me.

Neal was heard responding to a friend’s comment that “…that guy that bridged up and pulled you to the finish…” with “if you call that a pull!”

I took that as a compliment.

Jim and Scott took 4th in their respective races, while Geoff suffered a serious mechanical, limping in at 14th. Too bad, as he should have had a great opportunity to measure himself against Larry Nolan in the sprint. Next time.

Now I know why this race has such epic overtones, and why everyone was treating it with such reverence and dread. What a course! A big climb (done three times), a road surface that rivals Paris-Roubaix, screaming descents, great scenery…this was the full package.

Mark and I stayed close for the first couple of laps. By the third time up the climb, my quads were getting wonky, and I let about a 50-meter gap open. Problem is, with these guys, 50 meters is an eternity. Fortunately, I managed to horsewhip a couple of other guys into chasing, and we got back on. At that point I rode straight up to Mark and put my hand on his back to let him know I was back in the game.

With half a lap to go, I took a pull, then Mark pulled through and…opened a gap! I went straight to the front again, got down on the drops to emulate someone who was actually trying, and proceeded to slow the other 10 riders to a leisurely century pace. To my amazement, no one came around. So this is what it’s like to block—sweet!

It gave me immense pleasure to watch my coach disappear into the distance while I rode at the front of the chase group and kept the other knuckleheads going just 18-20 mph. Fun! I was on the verge of yelling “Go Mark!” but figured that would be poor style….

With Mark gone, I started to recover and was second in our group over the final climb. I really let it unwind on the descent, hardly touching the brakes, with big Larry Nolan on my wheel. When I got to the bottom we were flying toward the finish, but when I resumed pedaling, I discovered the rough road had dislodged the chain—front and back! I tried briefly to pedal it back on, then surrendered to the fact that I would have to pull over, yank the rear wheel out, and dislodge the chain from where it had wedged between the dropout and small cog. While I was doing this, the other members of the group flew past. Bummer!

Fortunately, I didn’t have to suffer the ignominy of having the rest of the field pass me, too. I fixed the bike and managed to ride in alone, to the finish, for 14th—the last rider of the group that had led for most of the race. Too bad—I was feeling like a top 10 was in the offing, but I’ll never know….

On balance I have to say this race was a great experience for me, despite my troubles. I managed to make the important field split and ride with the final group of 14 for most of the race (which ended up containing the three podium riders). Since I haven’t done a road race since the early ‘90s, that was cool.

And while it was Mark’s awesome move that earned him a podium spot, I like to think I helped a bit. I think that’s what you call a vicarious experience. And it was my pleasure!

Notes JIM LANGLEY, "Mark's description of his race is quite similar to how ours (55+) ended. After setting the pace on all the climbs and attacking repeatedly all the way in I couldn't shake 2-time winner John Elgart, Scott Hennessey and David Stockwell and they came around me at the line. I was disappointed at not being able to outsprint at least one of them, but I don't think if I'd sat on them the outcome would have been any different. I felt my best shot was trying to attack and attack and tire them out but they chased me down every time. Still I'm very happy to have been arguably the strongest rider in our race and for being right there in first with the finish line in sight before they came whizzing past. I'll see them again and try different tactics and maybe I'll get it right. You're not going to beat national champions unless you get every detail right and I'm learning with each lesson. Oh, a quick tech note: Mark and I raced on Dura-Ace wheels with tubeless tires (not sew-ups, but tubeless road tires) -- and we both felt this made a significant difference in comfort on those rough roads. My pressure was set at about 87 psi BTW."

The Copperopolis Road Race was held this year under beautiful sunny weather, warm but not hot, and very little wind. I started way at the back, almost dead last at the bottom of the climb. I slowly worked my way up the field and at the top, bridged to a group of five riders. I could barely hold their wheels through that first lap, even getting within a minute of what looked like the main field near the end of it. The second time up the hill, I left that group and bridged to another group of three by the top of the climb. I bridged two more times, leaving my group and catching the next group of two or three riders. The last person I caught left me on the final descent and I finished 19th in about 2 hours and 14 minutes.

I rode very conservatively in the begining, maybe a little bit too easy but I have blown up on the climb before only to lose gobs and gobs of time later on. All in all it was a great day for our team, Mark was 3rd in the 45+ open race, Scott was 4th in the 45+ 4/5 A race, Jim rode very well in the 55+ race. I heard John Elgard saying after the race "that Jim Langely attacked us the whole way after the second time up the climb". He said it was really hard and for once, he felt like the 55+ field was racing to win, not just for second place, which is what I am sure they have been racing for in the past. I Love hearing that.

Reports SCOTT MARTIN, "The 45+ 4-5 A race at Copperopolis was also a good one for Team Bicycle Trip. Coach Mark recommended I sit in for the first lap, which I did. On the second and final lap, I was supposed to force the pace on the steep part of the main climb, but apparently the rest of the pack didn't get that memo. Nine guys rode away from me but then eased off on the false flat near the summit and I scrambled back on. On the final climb, 2 guys escaped and I found myself in a 5-man chase group. We couldn't catch them on the crazy descent. I hung on for 2nd in the sprint and 4th overall."

Side note: "While warming up, we spotted a guy in an Astana jersey riding the course by himself. Levi getting in some training miles? (Levi has won the race in the past.)"

1 comment:

Matt the Ratt said...

Great race report! I was on the edge of my chair reading it. Good job you guys.