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!