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.
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.
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.
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.
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.