Orosi Road Race, March 29, 2008
By Mark Edwards
Is Orosi really the toughest road race in the NCNCA? For years I’ve been curious about Orosi. Several racers have told me it’s a climber’s course, it’s beautiful, and it’s the hardest race of the season. 60 miles, nearly 6,000’ feet of climbing, lightening fast narrow twisty descents and flat headwind stretches. It’s got it all.
Scott and I made a last minute decision to make a red eye round trip to see for ourselves. He picked me up at 4:00 AM and off we went.
The registration area was very low key. Threatening rain, out in the middle of no-where, long tough course, and early season kept the field small. Our 45+ race would be combined with the 35+ 1,2,3. I think there were about 25 of us at the start.
The long three mile promenade was relaxed and social. The long opening climb would change that…
30 minutes of climbing has a way of splitting things up. We didn’t appear to start too terribly hard, but the pace never dropped, even though the grade ramped up. Roughly 10 minutes after starting the climb the lead group was down to 6 (5-45+, 1-35+), and I was barely hanging on.
Somehow I’d managed to hang on as we topped out and started 15 or so miles of rollers. These guys were working together, and working hard. In a group that small you can’t hide. Also, in the world of the 45+ super climbers, you don’t want to get the reputation of a wheel sucker. These guys respect hard work and will reward it. Suck too many wheels and you’ll find yourself targeted and attacked until you’ve popped. Pull your weight and these guys will actually work to help you stay with the group. Sweet.
So work we did. The 35+ rider with us was a diesel, and the rest of us did our share. Several times I was worried that, even if I didn’t pop in our pace line, I would be in serious trouble on the second 30 mile lap.
We sat up once back down in the flats. We had about 5 miles before starting the big climb again. Just before getting to the climb a group of 6 guys caught us. I was stunned, it’s not like we were taking it easy (except the last couple of miles). Those guys must have taken some pretty big risks on the super steep, narrow, twisty descent (never mind the huge drop off on the left).
As the climb takes its first serious turn upwards the pavement deteriorates. In fact, I was thinking it was even worse than Copperopolis. Out of the saddle, nearly sprinting to keep in contact, my back tire was off the ground as much as it was on. Traction was sketchy at best. Fortunately this section is less than a mile in length. Copperopolis’ reputation for the worst pavement is still intact.
Jon Ornstil has long been a measuring stick for me. Not that I’m anywhere near his ability, but he likes the same type of races I do. Each year I try to move a couple of places closer to his finishes (usually 1st or 2nd). In both Pine Flat and Copperopolis I managed (for the first time ever) to actually finish ahead of him. I’m thrilled to have done that, but never believed it was anything other than a couple of lucky days. At Orosi the proper order would be restored. Jon was on, and he hadn’t made this long drive to finish in the pack.
A third of the way up the big climb, the second time, we were down to seven (6-45+, 1-35+). Jon was pulling like a freight train. Half way up Jon, Kevin Susco, and the 35+ rider pulled away. Four of us worked to try and limit the damage. Or more accurately, 3 of us worked. Our forth rider, Leon Pitts, is a teammate of Jon’s and was there to keep an eye on us and stay fresh.
90% of the way to the top Carl Nielson and I lost contact with Leon and Max (the 4th rider). Carl and I held the gap to 50 meters, but Jon’s group, powered by the 35+ rider was now out of sight. Just meters from the top both my calves cramped, damn! “There goes my race”. But Carl slowed at the same time. I limped over the top and caught Carl’s wheel for the level rolling section ahead.
Carl took a pull, but it seemed slow to me. I’d recovered a little, but what was going on for him? I pulled, he pulled, I pulled, when I turned for him to come around the next time I couldn’t see him. Carl rarely pops before me; I knew I was on borrowed time.
I was still feeling on the edge of cramping, but I was okay as long as I didn’t stand. I chased and finally caught Max and Leon. We were coming up to the hardest of the remaining climbs. I figured it was my only chance to drop Leon. If I could separate him we’d all be doing the same work. I attacked the last steep climb, luckily I didn’t cramp. I went over the top totally drained. A glance over my shoulder showed that Leon was six inches off my wheel, but Max was no where in sight.
At this point Leon agreed to work with me. Jon had an insurmountable lead and Leon and I didn’t want to get caught. So we teamed up and hammered towards the finish.
As we made the final right turn, 2 miles of gradual climbing lead to the finish. Leon and I decided to forgo the typical cat and mouse, track stand, surge tactics and go mano-a-mano to the finish. Let the strongest man win.
We slowly ramped up our speed until we were both breathing hard, at about 200 meters Leon jumped out of the saddle, but it appeared his legs buckled under him. I had a little left, so I tried to take it up another .5 mph. I couldn’t hold it, but it was enough. I finished third. Kevin got first, Jon second.
So is Orosi the toughest? Well… it was probably my toughest, but I’m sure that was primarily due to the highly motivated and tough field. Like they say, “The racers make the race”.