Part Deux of my weekend racing saga... though not as tragic as a Norse saga, it had it's own share of disappointment. Team Bicycle Trip had nine (9) racers in the 45+ age group of combined Category 3 and 4 racers. Nine! Including the 2007 Brisbane Highlands Circuit Race 45+ Cat. 4/5 champion, Mark Edwards! I would definitely have picked us to win if I were a bookie, yet the best laid plans...
Team Captain Eddy "The Snake" Price and I powered up the peninsula in his Cougar on that cold but beautiful morning, drinking coffee and talking a mile a minute; we were psyched! Not only did our chances for this circuit race look great but I was also in contention for a podium spot in this 2-stage race weekend after my nice 5th place in the Saturday criterium, which was Stage 1 of the "Omnium" (the circuit race would be Stage 2 and the two results combined for an overall winner). Ed vowed to work hard to help me with whatever he could do to help me, while I and the rest of the team worked to help Mark.
We got to the venue in time to watch Robbie Abundis in the 35+ Cat. 4 race where he got a solid 31st-place finish with the pack. The course was much tougher than Saturday's; about 1.7 miles with 100 feet of climbing per lap on a smooth looping road in a valley next to Mt. San Bruno. And the wind picked up again, though a bit weaker. So it was great to see him do well. Matt Werner and Bob Montague, too, rode strong, in the open Cat. 5 race.
Ed warmed up on his rollers while I warmed up by riding around. Mark, Geoff Drake, Jim Langley, Scott Martin, Joe Platin and John Pollard showed up and we had a quick summary of Mark' s ideas for tactics (Vladan Strbac arrived later). There were some great tips on how to close or create gaps as needed, when to go with a break or not, and much more. Each of us had a specific role to fill too. Originally I was to help create gaps and hopefully lead Mark out at the finish, but Mark instead suggested that I just save myself for the leadout. This was awesome, but I also knew that having a bunch of guys in the same uniform was no guarantee that we'd work well together as a team. But Team Bicycle Trip has trained and raced together so well before that I was certain we'd shine.
We all tried to be at the front of the pack at the start so we could begin our tactics immediately. Like usual my Nordic upbringing worked against me and I politely let half the pack in before me. The start, at the top of the hill, was fast down the curving hill and I had to work forward a bit at first. While I was just supposed to sit in and rest, I felt I could also try to make some small contributions to help Mark for the Stage 2 win. I also wanted to mark my competitors for the Omnium, but I felt the hilly course was better for me than those big sprinters so that shouldn't distract me too much.
It was great to see the team working together, and I was truly impressed at how well they all did in following our script. I even heard some guys talking about Mark and us. At one point I was following Scott when he slowed down annoyingly -- he was supposed to do that, so great work Scott! And I made a few of my own gaps at times. On one lap I found myself at the front and able to promote a gap to Jim and another guy who were off the front up the hill. Then Joe shot forward spectacularly to join them and instantly a Peninsula Velo guy said "there are two of them up there now." That shut down the break, but it also reminded me of how powerful Joe is.
We had a few hard climbs but I truly felt great the whole time. Sitting in the pack with that headwind up the hill really helps! But that could also mean that our competitors were doing likewise. Jim tried to tell me something on one of the last laps. I had a hard time hearing in the wind, but I later learned that he was offering to lead me out, though I would probably have declined anyway and stuck to our original script. I had a hard time seeing who was working at the front, but certainly my teammates were there a lot, and I saw Mark sitting in a lot too so it looked like everything was going perfectly to plan. However, there were cracks starting to form that I knew nothing of.
With 2 laps to go Geoff was off the front and forcing a furious pace that must have taken a lot out of the pursuers. Mark was next to me and I said to him "this is good!" I was still feeling fresh, though I had to take a few calming breaths, and I was excited at the prospect of Geoff possibly soloing to victory, while we still had Mark as an ace in the hole should Geoff tire. I tried to open a few gaps without getting dropped myself, because I was still holding back a little in case I needed to lead out Mark.
On the last lap I was near the front on the downhill. On the climb I saw Geoff way up ahead, maybe 100 yards or more, and I again tried to open up a gap. But then Geoff moved off course... what happened?!! I moved forward because the chase group, I was fairly sure, had no Team Bicycle trip jerseys in it. I passed Geoff sitting in the main pack... OK, how did he get there? Thoroughly confused, I moved forward and saw Jim also sitting in and Mark was, inexplicably, nowhere near the front. There was an increasing gap to the leaders and none of us were with them. It was like our team vanished! The finish line was getting closer and I got worried that all nine of us were missing the decisive move!
I noticed that Darryl Smith (ICCC) and Jess Raphael (VOS) were ahead of me, and I was marking them for placement in the 2-day Omnium results. I resolved to move ahead, plans be darned, and at least stay with those two guys. Perhaps Mark was moving up behind me and Jim or Geoff could help him. All I knew for certain was that I would never want to be any further back at that late point in the race, regardless of my role!
As I closed the gap big Jess was dropping off the pace on the climb, but Darryl was still up front. I drafted Jess for a few seconds but he was letting a gap open with no VOS guys ahead of him. He was at 100% already and sounded like a steam engine! I quickly decided to move around him and soon I could see the barriers that marked the finish line area. Time to get moving! I closed the last gap to the back of the lead pack and tried my best to keep going. I passed a few guys and was making headway, but I was in my 42-tooth chainring instead of my 53. Not ideal. I ended up in my 42x12 as I desperately flew to the line to salvage whatever place I could for the team. I briefly caught Steve Mielich (SJBC), but he threw his bike at the line for 8th place, while I got 9th!
What happened? I couldn't believe that I ended up being our best finisher! Well, I was able to piece it together after our cool-down lap. It turned out that Mark and Scott had decided to go to the Orosi Road Race the day before; 60 miles long with 6,000 feet of climbing! I had no idea any teammates were even remotely interested in going there. Well, that explained why Mark was too tired to contest the finish. I don't know that I would have finished any better than I did even so, because I clearly held back enough to be able to sprint at the end. Unfortunately Jim thought we had a teammate in the lead pack so he held back... he might have been able to contribute or even go for the win himself. And Geoff's mysterious disappearance and reappearance? That was Ed who pulled off course! Geoff had been caught while Ed was up ahead and about to be lapped! Mystery solved.
[I later learned that everybody except Ed and I knew about this plan and they had discussed it while carpooling to the race, but the important message that I was the leader wasn't specifically mentioned to me. Oops.]
After our race Ed, Vlada and I watched Bryan King race in Cat. 4. He kept in a perfect position the whole race and finished strong in 24th. Great job! It also turned out my parents had watched the whole race, unbeknownst to me. I also discovered that I finished 5th in the overall Omnium results for the weekend... but the podium only went down to 3rd place! Oh well.
Still, it was an awesome experience, in spite of the lack of a podium finisher from our team. Teamwork isn't something that we can learn instantly, and we have more work to do. But we delivered 90% of our plan, and that is a great testament to the quality of our riders. I am proud to be a part of Team Bicycle Trip and in the future I know we'll also deliver the most important element of our plan; victory!