Sunday, April 27, 2008

2008 55+ Wente Vineyards Road Race Report

2008 Wente Vineyards Road Race 55+/45+ 1/2/3s
(groups started together/were scored separately; distance: 66 miles; about 90-rider pack)
By Jim Langley

Three laps into the Wente Vineyards Road Race, if you had told me I was going to finish 3rd, I would have told you you were crazy. At the moment, though I had surprised myself and chased hard down the main descent and caught back onto the lead pack after getting gapped over the big climb, when I tried to hit the gas and move to a safer spot in the peloton where I could recover, my legs completely gave out and I had no choice but to stop pedaling, slow to a crawl and rest.

Demoralized, and sure that I was losing any chance of placing, I watched the lead group, maybe 35 riders, disappear up the road, my only consolation, that Mark Edwards was sitting comfortably at the back, for sure feeling significantly fresher than me.

Mind Games
Bad thoughts creep into your head at times like this. I wondered if there was a quick way back to the truck but realized I didn't have the key. I told myself that I was out of my league and fooling myself to think I could compete with these animals. I suddenly felt the heat of the day and remembered all the times it has knocked me out of races and double centuries. All the Felton/Empire intervals, stretching, upper-body work and dieting crossed my mind and I thought, 'what's the point to train so hard and live like a monk if you can't even stick with the bunch on a hilly road race?'

Things were about to get even worse. After soft-pedaling along on my fragile legs alone for about a mile, I was caught by eight riders, six from the 45+ and a couple 55+ers. It was obvious that the young guys were fried and just cruising in on auto-pilot but the geezers were at the front clearly racing each other. One was a Hammer Nutrition guy I'd seen at Sea Otter and the other guy, a skinny, light climber, was from Webcor. Having people to ride with and seeing how badly the 45+ guys were feeling boosted my spirits a bit and I drifted to the back and sat there hoping they wouldn't accelerate as their pace was already testing my useless legs.

Sitting In
I did think to stay on the extreme right shoulder of the road hoping that the 55+ guys wouldn't see my number and realize I was in their group (numbers were on the right side for this race). This worked great. The 55+ guys and a couple of the 45+ers did all the work as I just sat there, sipping my Heed and hoping I would recover at least enough to finish the final lap and half of the race. Clearly I wasn't going to be able to beat the guys in my category in this group. And obviously there had to be a bunch more 55+ guys in the huge group that had ridden off over the horizon. But, maybe I could hang in, finish, and at least get a good workout.

We stuck together in this little group and hit the main climb again. The smaller Webcor 55+ guy gapped us big-time up the hill but couldn't sit out in the wind alone and we caught him and were all together again on the descent. We kept rolling through the backside of the course. And, we started picking up people dropped from the main bunch, all 45+ riders. As our pack grew larger, fortunately no one wanted to really push except a tall Specialized guy who seemed not to mind being at the front and the same two 55+ guys who continued beating each other up, which gave me a little hope.

The Odds Worsen
But, the pace wasn't fast at all and soon we were caught by a larger bunch from behind and my hopes sank again. Here we were, only five miles or so from the hilltop finish, and in this group were about five more 55+ers all looking remarkably fresh. Worse, I hadn't realized they were overtaking us and was riding on the left line exposing my number and they had clearly spotted me. Doing the math, I realized there was a good chance now that I wasn't even going to place top ten - and here I had thought I might have a chance to compete with the likes of Richard Lorson and John Elgart, regular 55+ champions at the highest level. Right.

Coach Speaks
Our group started rolling a little faster as we hit the flats heading toward the final climb and I suddenly heard Coach Mark Edwards' voice in my head. He had said, "Jim, if you find yourself heading into the finishing climb with someone you know you can't outclimb, try attacking him before the climb. Most climbers don't like covering attacks and if you can tire him out before the hill you have a good chance to win the climb." This thought was immediately followed by more thoughts, like 'what's the point?' and 'how can I attack on these lousy legs?'

Let The Attacks Begin
After a little analysis paralysis, I decided anything would be better than assuming pack-fodder status all the way to the hill and then watching the other 55+ers, including the Webcor climber who had made it look so easy on lap four, scamper up the hill and drop me. So, I waited until I had a clear line, shifted up ever so quietly so as not to announce the move, and motored off the front of the pack. I just wanted to open a small gap to see what would happen.

Two great things did: amazingly, my legs felt fine(!), and the only guys to chase me were the two Webcor 55+ers, Larry Wolff who finished 4th at Sea Otter and the little climber, who I learned later was Ron Lebard. That's just what I wanted. Since I was now at the front with the 2 Webcor guys refusing to come around, I gassed it again but this time they were on me immediately and I didn't get any gap. So, I went again, and they covered again, but this time, when I slowed, I moved wide left and hung my head and slowed a lot so that they would pass me, which they did. If attacking off the front wasn't going to work, I'd try it from the pack...

If At First...
I sat in the group for a few minutes waiting for a good time and when I saw that one of the Webcor guys was boxed in and the other was sipping from his bottle, I shot out of the pack and really hurt my legs and opened a huge gap, at least 1/4 mile. This time they didn't try to cover it, but Ron and Larry were right at the front of the peloton dragging the whole bunch back to me. The effort had hurt me but looking back I could see that it would cost the guy I most wanted to tire out, so I was confident it was a good move. I soft pedaled, drank a bit and waited for them to overtake me. I was so happy my legs were back. I wasn't sure if the attacking was having an effect but it was at least a plan and having a plan gave me something to focus on instead of just spinning along in the bunch with my bad thoughts.

All Hell Breaks Loose
We were about a mile and half from the start of the main climb, actually on the approach, a gradual uphill leading to the right turn marking the long finishing climb - and the pack had slowed again. From what I could tell, all my attacks hadn't had much effect. All the 55+ guys were still there including Ron the climber and Larry who was so strong at Sea Otter. I decided that even though we were so close to the climb, I was going to try attacking one more time. Maybe this would be the magic one even if none of the others had worked. Maybe it would open a gap that would stick and I'd have a good lead at the base of the climb and be able to hold on to the top.

The timing was perfect. Larry was really boxed in, Ron was nearby but stuck on the other side of two riders blocking his exit, and I was sitting pretty on the outside, not far from the yellow line. I shifted up a couple of cogs, stood and jumped at about 80% effort.

Immediately I heard metal on pavement, swears, screeching brakes and shouting. I glanced back and saw two riders down, others fanned across the road, a couple stopped. I couldn't understand what had happened. I was sure my attack was clean - that I hadn't bumped anyone or even crossed a wheel. Suddenly a huge 45+ guy had sprinted to my left shoulder and was screamed toward me, but I realized he wasn't mad at me but at Ron Lebard, the Webor rider who was now on my right hip.

Bewildered and losing my race focus I asked if I had caused the crash and the 45+er told me, no, that it was that squirrel, pointing at Ron and telling him to withdraw from the race and that he was filing a protest as soon as he got back to the finish. (Ron had been so determined to cover my attack that he had swerved from his inside position and had taken out the front wheel of the rider to his left, which in turn caused the rider behind to crash, too.) The 45+ guy told me the riders were banged up but not too seriously so I tried hard to get my focus back on finishing the race.

Surprise, Surprise
Ron was taking heat from other guys but he still pushed hard and hung with me. I don't know whether it was my attacks or his causing the crash, or a combination of both, but I put in one more pretty weak attack on my fading legs at the base of the final climb and this time he couldn't respond. I worked even harder and increased the gap and ended up the first 55+er in the bunch to the finish by a large margin. I was still demoralized not having been able to hang with the front bunch. But, when I found out later that only two 55+ers had been up there - John Elgart and Richard Lorson, putting me in 3rd overall, I felt a lot better. I later found out that one of the 55+ had had to get off his bike and walk a bit on the final climb because he was so tired and most were spread down the climb. So, all the attacking had had an effect after all.

I spoke to Ron Lebard after the race and learned he had disqualified himself and had also apologized to the guys he took down and promised to replace the one guy's $1,000 wheel and other guy's helmet.

Wente Road Race

Wente Road Race, April 26, 2008
By Mark Edwards

What a day! The Altamont Pass can deliver a wide range of weather, from extreme heat to chilling rain and fog. And… let’s not forget those windmills, unbelievably strong winds. But not today, today was going to be gorgeous. Mid 60’s to mid 70’s with a light westerly breeze.

Larry, Joe, Scott, Jim, and I arrived an hour before our start time, hopped on our bikes and rode over to registration. We were signed in and back to change into our race kit within minutes. As usual we were all a little apprehensive… Wente Vineyards Road Race, with a challenging hilly course, located in the heart of the Bay Area, draws a large field of very strong racers.

Joe and Scott would be racing the 45+ 4/5, Jim and Larry the 55+ 1,2,3, and I’d be in the 45+ 1,2,3. Larry and Jim’s group would start with mine, Scott’s and Joe’s fifteen minutes later. You’ll have to read their reports to find out how they did (okay, just a hint – Team Bike Trip had another successful day!).

My starting field was 73 guys, combined with the 18 55+ guys, we rolled off the start with 91 racers. 91 guys confined to a single lane can be pretty cozy. It’s tough to move around, like a very fast moving school of sardines, everything has to be done in unison - otherwise the consequences are disastrous. We were scheduled for 4+ laps (the finish is several miles past the start line) which, at 66 miles, includes climbing Altamont Pass 5 times.

The first climb was uneventful as everyone is looking around to see who appears strong. A few guys got dropped from the brisk pace, but the majority of the group stayed together. There was a crash victim from a previous group being attended to by the Fire Department on the descent; it would take two laps before they had him ready to move.

Lap two was similar to lap one. But, as we got ready to start the third climb, I pulled up next to Jim and said “hang on; I think things are going to get hot this time”. And hot up they did. Morgan Stanley had 10 competitive guys, VOS had 5, Webcore 8 or so. They each had their protected rider, the remaining teammate’s jobs were to tire out anyone who might be a threat for the win with constant attacks.

To be in this particular race you had to be a Category 1, 2, or 3 racer. To advance from a Category 4 to a 3, or 3 to 2, or 2 to 1, you have to do a bunch of races and place very high (or win) several races against lots of other really fit, really motivated serious racers. My race included a World Champion, a National Champion, a US Professional Champion, and many other accomplished racers.

So, when I say things heated up, I’m not kidding. What had been a group of about 80 was down to 40 in about 3 minutes. Thankfully, I was feeling surprisingly comfortable considering the labored breathing going on around me. It wasn’t that my legs and lungs weren’t complaining, but I got the sense lots of guys felt a lot worse.

The forth time up the Altamont was similar to the third, fast and hard, but this time only a few guys popped off the back. These are the moments where you have to have faith in your training. It can feel like you’re faltering while everyone else looks strong. So, with my faith in hand, I took a few pulls at the front as we climbed the rollers south of Hwy 580. Not super hard, but hard enough to keep anybody from resting.

As we neared the base of the descent I was considering attacking the group. I was hoping to get away with one or two other racers working together to hold off the pack until the finish. It seemed a long shot, but you don’t know if you don’t try. Just before the right hand turn on to the long flat stretch leading to the final climb, Mark Caldwell attacked off the front and got a gap. Great! Mark knows I’m strong and might be willing to work with me. So I countered his attack and bridged up to him. I went by him hoping he’d hop on my wheel, but not today. Mark’s a former Pro and often uses various tactics to weaken the field. One is attacking just to draw others out and zap their energy reserves. He then drops back into the group and rests. He got me this time.

We were probably 6 miles from the final climb and 7 from the finish at this point. The game of cat and mouse was about to begin. A little early, but you can’t risk someone escaping off the front, you’ve got to watch every move very carefully. Jon Ornstil, Jan Elsbach, and a couple of others took turns attacking. We’d give them a little rope, and then someone would get worried and chase them down. I’d wait for the 2nd or 3rd nervous chaser, hop on their wheel, let them pull me up near the break away and counter attack. Again hoping the original attacker would go with me when I got there. But it never seemed to work out. Either they were too tired by the time I got there, or they weren’t really interested in making a run for it.

Once we turned off the flat section the attacks stopped. It’s a gentle climb of about two miles up to the steep climb and everyone was trying to rest and get in position for the final assault to the finish. We made the right turn that starts the final mile climb and it was like a gun going off! Scott Frake of Webcore (a favorite going in) took off. Jan Elsbach, always the fighter, was in pursuit. Ted Thomas was hot on Jan’s heels and looking very strong. Behind them, 30 of the best Master’s racers on the West Coast were chomping at their bits. I was near the front and saw Ted accelerate and overtake Scott, we were ½ way up the hill and Ted looked strong. Scott hadn’t given up, and Jan appeared to be waiting in the wings.

There’s a false flat just before the final little rise to the finish line that has lulled many a racer into starting his sprint too soon. Ted’s powerful attack seemed to be running out of steam. Jan seized the opportunity and attacked around Ted. Was he going too soon? I was on Jan’s wheel and hoped he wouldn’t blow before the finish, leaving me blocking the wind for a dozen hungry racers sitting on my wheel.

Jan’s strong but he jumped early, at about 100 meters from the finish I felt him weaken. Crap! Normally 100 meters would be a great distance to sprint, but after climbing all out for a mile, the legs don’t have much sprint left in them. In fact, you’re never quite sure if they’ll even support your weight at this point, let alone accelerate uphill into a wind.

I was too close to the finish to wait and grab another wheel for protection, so I jumped to Jan’s right. That put me into the view of the spectators at the finish. Scott and Joe’s cheering cut right through the crowd, boosting my motivation. Immediately the guy behind me, Eric Saltzman (one of the two remaining Morgan Stanley guys), jumped to my right. It was a drag race. I knew I could take Jan, but Eric cut it close and bumped me hard. We all threw our bikes, and finished Eric 1st, me 2nd, and Jan 3rd, just inches apart.

What a race! What a finish!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Santa Cruz Classic Criterium XXXVIII, 4/6/2008

Psssssss, psssssss, psssssss, psssssss, psssssss... that was the sound my deflating tire made just 1 and 1/3 laps into my 20-lap Category 3 race, and my fortunes deflated along with it. This happened as I rode in the fast-moving pack of cyclists and hit a small pothole just downhill from the hairpin that was Turn 1 of our 9/10-of-a-mile course on Santa Cruz's Beach Hill, near the Boardwalk. I'd really targeted this hometown race and now I was out of it after just a few minutes!

All was not lost though; I could still take advantage of the "free lap" rule which allows us to repair the flat tire, usually by replacing the whole wheel and tire as a unit, and get back into the race in our last placement. I just had to act very quickly just before the pack came back. I dashed up the pedestrian ramp connecting Pacific Avenue and 3rd Street, bike on my shoulder, beating the peloton back to the start/finish line. I could do it! I had a whole lap to swap wheels and get ready to rejoin them! I ran across the course to the officials and made sure they had my number, then ran to the pit area, saw nobody I knew, and went to the Team Santa Cruz awning. "Anybody got a 10-speed Shimano wheel I can borrow?" Blank stares, an offer of a Campagnolo wheel, then Mark Knutson remembered he had a spare in his truck... "Can I borrow it?" Sure. "Now?" Yes, I could! And off he rode to get it. But as much as I appreciated Mark's effort my heart sank as I now saw my hopes of getting back in diminish. Sure enough, the peloton rushed by again while I waited, and there was no chance I'd be able to swap wheels and catch up to them now.

Quite a few people belatedly offered me spare wheels I no longer needed. I ain't supposed to cry, but I was sure bummed as I sat and replaced the pinch-flatted inner-tube. I usually pump my tires to 120 PSI, but kept them lower this time for lower rolling resistance. Never again. I used to have some spare wheels, but was forced to put them on my 9-speed commuter bike to replace the old ones which had about 32,000 miles on them. Sigh.

I'd also signed up for the Category 1, 2 and 3 "Master" race for guys 35 and older. That was my "Plan B." I'd scoped out the competition the day before, and the long list of top-notch racers was daunting. I'd told Team Bicycle Trip Captain Ed Price that I would only do this race if I felt good after the Cat. 3 race, and wasn't emphasizing it in any case, a decision he deemed wise. But now it was all I had. I'd invited family and friends to watch me race, and now I'd really have to suffer to put on a good show. Well, nothing builds character like suffering, they say!

Margaret and I had plenty of time to watch my teammate, Jim Langley, finish strong in the Cat. 3 race (some video here). I had really looked forward to working with him, but now I was just cheering him on as he took big pulls at the front of the pack to bring back some breakaways. He made a lot of friends in the peloton that way! But he was so tired from the race that he couldn't do my later race too. So I knew for sure I'd suffer alone. At least we had a big team presence in the 35+ 4/5 race, with Steve Rosen, Joe Platin, Robbie Abundis and Ed proudly wearing Bicycle Trip kit. They all finished well in their race, as did Bryan King (5th in Cat. 4, and our new chicken mascot!), and I started to get ready for my execution, uh, I mean, Master race.

We tried to line up for our start but had to wait for for stragglers from the Cat. 5 race, where my teammate Robert Gaukel got his own share of suffering at the hands of rookie Robert Amatelli, a natural talent who can go far if he wants. The usual big teams awaited me; big-legged guys with big names like Larry Nolan in the rainbow-striped sleeves of a World Champion, Kevin Metcalfe (Team Specialized Racing) and Michael Hernandez, (VOS racing) and Michael Hutchinson (Morgan Stanley) in his National Champion's jersey... you get the idea. I wasn't nervous, but certainly not full of optimism either.

As you'd expect, the first lap felt like a series of full-on long sprints, with our recovery consisting of the time it took us to slow through the turns. Well, actually almost all the laps were just like that! We'd been doing about 2:06 laps in the Cat. 3 race, but now we were down to as fast as 1:49! (Kevin Metcalfe's MotionBased data shows we averaged 23.55 MPH, and the last lap was 26.1 MPH... even with hills and a headwind!) I would gasp for air, tuck in behind the guy in front of me and try to maintain my energy at every opportunity. I went from riding mostly with my hands comfortably on the hoods to being in the drops the whole time as the strong WNW wind and high speed made every economy imperative. And from switching between my 42-tooth chainring and 53-tooth, to just staying in my 53-tooth.

Occasionally the pack would string out in single-file as the pace went ballistic for a prime sprint, and twice the pace slowed down very briefly. I was wheezing at times, and my legs burned much of the time, but somehow I was able to hang on towards the back of the pack. If I didn't do all of Mark Edwards's painful workouts with our teammates I wouldn't have lasted more than a lap or two. No exaggeration. I tried moving forward, but every time I did I'd soon find myself back at the tail again. I had very little reserve so I couldn't afford to take chances that would waste energy. Even a minor mistake, like a poor shift, could have sent me off the back into oblivion.

I was pretty oxygen-deprived, but I distinctly remember hearing my name called out from the crowd, and "go Bicycle Trip" at other times. There were a lot of locals watching, and teammates, friends, my wife; all around the course. Very cool! And very motivating... you have no idea.

On the last lap I slowly moved forward in the pack, to about the middle; maybe the cheering brought some last hidden energy reserves out! And as we hit the hill up 3rd Street for that final effort I rode around a few more guys. I was hoping to keep my top-10 streak for the year alive, at least! It seemed possible, but...

As I rode through a gap between two guys spread across the right side of the road, the guy on my right, in Morgan-Stanley kit, decided to move back to the left just as I called out "in the middle" or something to that effect. That didn't stop him and he collided with my shoulder. He shimmied a bit but held on, as did I. And he apparently still had plenty of energy to cuss me out too! This was eerily like what happened at Menlo Park... I wonder.

No time for arguments, I surged ahead and caught another guy or two for 18th place. But that was not worth a tongue-lashing! On the cool-down lap I sought out the guy to apologize for the incident. He cussed me out some more, calling it a "stupid rookie move," then calmed down when he saw that I understood the issue and meant well. We parted amicably, surprisingly! The whole thing really ruined my race though... where I should have been proud of hanging in with this crowd of berzerkers (only 38 of the 66 starters even finished) I was merely made aware of how far I have to go to be competitive; there I was, sprinting for 18th place. Sigh.

Our teammate Steve Rosen got some very nice video of this race. Check out the video!

Enough with the self-pity; back home we went for a quick party!!! I had invited some co-workers who didn't doze off when I described my races, some family members, whether or not they dozed off, and... I meant to invite the whole team but somehow that e-mail never left my keyboard. More apologies! At least I got to invite those still spectating. We bought live crabs on the wharf, sped home and soon enough I was eating to make myself feel better and enjoying another aspect of the good life; food, friends and family. I am a very lucky dude!

Santa Cruz Classic crit, cat 4, 4/6/08

The Santa Cruz Classic crit is my favorite race. I love the course, it was my first crit race 3 years ago, and having friends and family watch definitely adds some motivation. My friend lives at Cliff and 3rd, right at the top of the climb, so about 15 of my friends and my dad showed up to cheer me on and cook bacon and pancakes on a camp stove as a post race reward.
In the past, I've had good success by making sure I'm in good position on Laurel st extension as it narrows down as people in the back will get slowed down going into the turn and waste energy accelerating up the hill lap after lap. In the front you can get a good line and not lose much speed. The hairpin is really not much of a worry, but the inside line is a little tricky as it's sharp and steep.
The start was 45 minutes late as they had to tow a lot of cars that were on the course. I talked with Nick Purtscher during warm up and we were going to watch one guy who has done well in the past couple races. If we could get in a break with him we could probably be successful. There were had about 75 riders, a lot more than I had raced against in the past years. Ed Price was in the race too, but he was going to use the race as a warm up for the M35+ 4/5 later on.
The first couple laps were fast paced, I worked hard to stay in the front 10 and made every effort to spin up the hill instead of standing and grinding. The group was a little strung out, but usually bunched together a bit on the climb. I didn't see the attack, but the guy Nick and I pinned took off with another rider around the middle of the race. They got up to like a 10" lead, but were caught a couple laps later.
With 5 to go I caught myself slipping back, so I made a big effort to gain some positions on the climb. It's hard to concentrate fully when your friends are yelling "SPRING BREAK" and there's bacon scents wafting through the air, but I got back into front of the group. My legs felt suprisingly good, and I knew I would have a good chance if it came down to a group sprint.
Leading up to the last lap, the pace picked up significantly with no real attacks going, this was going to come down to a group sprint!!! The last lap was fast, I took a good line through the outside at the Spruce street left hand turn on the backside of the course and moved up to about 6-7th. Going into Laurel extension I got pinned on the inside and lost a lot of speed in the turn. I slipped back to about 10th starting up the hill. I went about 90% on the hill and picked a 3rd Pillar guy to follow as he had some good speed at the crest. There was a couple guys just ahead of us and some guys on the side as well. The 3rd Pillar guy started fading with about 100M to go, and right when I was starting to go around him on the left he moved over just enough to slightly rub my front wheel, this slowed me down, so I had to reaccelerate and go around on the right. I had a good shot to the finish, and was able to pass a rider or two after getting slowed. I finished 5th, but just missed out on 4th.
I felt really good this race, worked hard for position without spending too much energy like I did at Brisbane. After the race, I enjoyed my bacon and bloody mary with friends watching the other races. If you happened to see the big red bird out there, that was me..... hope I didn't distract you too much Joe =)

Jim's Santa Cruz Crit Report

Santa Cruz Criterium Cat 3, April 6, 2008
By Jim Langley (in yellow in the photo)

I've done the Santa Cruz Criterium four times and once took 10th, but this year's race had to be my best, even though I finished at the back of the Cat 3 pack. I'm sure if they'd had a 45+ or even 55+ event I'd have been able to compete even better, but it was thrilling to be in with the zippy young whippersnappers on that screaming-fast course.

The first laps seriously tested my heart-rate ceiling as we sprinted madly out of the hairpin, shot through the corners and then exploded up the climb at a ridiculous pace. Luckily it settled down about four laps in and I was able to hide and recover. Yet, as the race went on, it became obvious that while I might be able to hang and even make it to the front, the class of the field was just waiting to really show their strength at the end of the race. (We easily pulled back the breakway attempts - I helped with one and got a nice pat on the back from another rider for my effort.)

With three laps to go, I got to the front hoping to stay there to have some chance for a decent finish. But the final lap saw the most aggressive and speedy riding of the day, and try as I might, instead of staying forward I frustratingly found myself bumped to mid to back of the pack! I kept charging, though, and hit the last corner very fast and shot up the hill. I passed a few guys who blew but couldn't make any ground on the top guys and probably finished 28th, best guess.

I consider hanging in to the end with such a quick, young bunch, and tearing through those wild corners with them, too, and not crashing (there was one with two laps to go), a really good effort. Thanks to everyone who cheered me on out there. That was a huge boost and kept me focused and fighting and I really appreciate it. See you on the road!