They made me suffer, and suffer, and then suffer some more. They made me burn matches I didn't know I had, and then dig through the cushions of my sofa looking for more. The heat and very dry air sucked all of the moisture from my mouth, and even three large bottles of water couldn't keep up with my losses. A salty dust from lost electrolytes coated my skin, though I barely saw any sweat because it evaporated too quickly. Yet I convinced myself to keep pedaling, and that if I could just stay with the race leaders at the end it would be worth it. Fear that I'd let my Bicycle Trip teammates down was what kept me going!
I got up that morning at 5:15AM, and stepped on the scale: 155 pounds. Sigh; I'd gained several extra pounds from eating out too much (think "salt") that I'd now have to lug up over the 55-mile course's 2,650 feet of climbing. On the other hand, the meteorologists forecast nearly 90-degree heat at our race venue by Blossom Hill Winery, and that area, a gorgeous valley south of Hollister, is notoriously dry. The water my body had soaked up the previous few days might actually help me in the heat. Plus, the pressure on me was lower because Team Bicycle Trip's other 45+ open-category racers, Mark Edwards and Jim Langley, and I would all be riding in support of "our man," Geoff Drake.
My teammates Gary Griffin, Joe Platin and John Pollard, who were racing in the 45+ Cat. 4/5 race, and I, carpooled to FlapJack's Country Cafe, a local race sponsor, for a huge, yummy, country-style breakfast. Bob Montague (racing 35+ Cat. 5) met us there at 7:00. It was everything I had hoped for: A huge plate of pancakes with lots of walnuts, banana and butter, swimming in a pool of syrup. Oh, two eggs, orange juice and coffee too. It was absolutely delicious! (Read my thoughts on race-day breakfasts.)
After we signed in with the nice Lion's Club volunteers and suited up, we warmed up just a little, as we were already pretty warm, and discussed tactics. Mark was pretty sure the peloton of this increasingly-popular race would stay together, unlike in 2006 and 2007 where the various climbs separated us into ever-smaller groups. The reason was that the big teams, like Morgan-Stanley, ICCC, VOS and Alto Velo/Webcor, had many more riders registered, and the larger 50-rider field would give the advantage to bigger groups of riders, thanks to the "draft" they create. That would require a change of tactics because I, the sprinter from our team, would be more comfortable fighting with the other teams at the finish line. Even though I have long felt that this course, with it's shorter climbs and flat finish, would be my best bet for doing well in a hilly road race, I doubted I would last long enough with the "big dogs" to contest the finish... I hadn't in the past.
As big as my breakfast was, it only provided about 1,100 calories, half of what I would need, so I would run out of gas without the sport drink (two big bottles) and gels I brought with me. I had extras for my teammates (what a domestique!), but they never requested any.
We lined up with the big names at the start line, ready for our 9:20AM whistle. It was warm, and when we started nobody pushed too hard for a few miles. The tailwind helped. I moved forward as we approached the first big climb, and saw Jon Ornstil (VOS) do the same. After a few feints, somebody up front drilled it hard, and I was soon in the "hurt locker." I think Geoff was one of the guys pushing the pace. It hurt, a lot... I believe Mark took a turn too. Soon I was breathing so hard my rib-cage hurt, and my mouth was bone dry. The guys around me must have pitied me.
None of the attacks lasted too long though, and I was fairly sure I could last through the second climb, at least, and maybe a bit more, but not so sure of the extra climbing this 45+ race called for. I thought maybe Jim and I could block for Geoff later, if he could get into a strong breakaway. Soon the second step was behind us but on the third big climb, where Mark and Scott dropped me last year, Jim gasped out that he was through. I was shocked. He's a stronger climber than me, and I was hanging on, albeit on a razor's edge (and glad I used my 39x25-tooth gears instead of my 42x25!). I encouraged him by pointing out that the summit was just ahead, maybe 100 feet, but the heat had taken it out of him. I had to pedal on smoothly or risk losing their draft, so I left him behind.
I soon spotted the place I crashed in 2006, and suddenly it dawned on me... the worst of the climbing was behind me! But I knew there were still about 38 miles to go with much climbing. No rest yet.
As we coasted through some mercifully-downhill sections Geoff told me Mark was unhappy at the slow pace... eh? Slow for them maybe, but I had been at my painful limit for very long periods of time, much of it in my lactic-acid "L5" zone or even higher! I silently thanked Mark for getting us to do those weekly L5 workouts at UCSC. No way would I have lasted without that training. No way. And this made me consider the possibility that Mark was right about our tactics too; I might be there to contest the finish after all. I knew from those workouts that even while riding in L5 I have a strong sprint left in me, so I was cautiously optimistic.
Our turnaround this year was at 27.47 miles, just past a rural store with old men resting on the porch in the shade. Fun! But the fun ended as we headed west again, right into the headwind. It seemed several guys tried to attack out of the tight U-turn; the pack surged with each new attack, but none stuck because of the draft advantage the guys behind the leaders had with that headwind. Even so it was painful, my back and hands hurt too, and I was soon gasping for breath again and nearly out of water!
I made plans to grab a water bottle from the volunteers manning the feed zone at mile 37 and stuck one of my empty bottles in my jersey pouch to make room in my second bottle cage. Geoff had to help me. The course climbs back up to the feed zone, and there were several more attacks, I think one was from Steve Archer. I secretly started hoping for a flat tire! That was about the extent of my reasoning capabilities at that point, due to oxygen deprivation!
But it got worse just past the feed zone as gaps formed during the bottle handouts. I grabbed a bottle (without dropping it!), stowed it, and immediately had to close a gap, a task that put me into the red zone. Then the gap opened again, bigger... I was cross-eyed from effort, my legs didn't respond, I was finished, done, demoralized! The prospect of a long solo ride back loomed in my mind. NOOOOOOOO!!! Somehow, the image of that, and fear of letting my teammates down, made me give it one more try. It took me 20 seconds but I made it, and they didn't attack! If they had known how close I was to my limit...
On one of the climbs back Kevin Susco (Alto Velo/Webcor) tried to attack too, but was quickly marked by Morgan-Stanley and he backed off. Then it was Mark's turn to inflict pain, and he moved up to the front. At that point I was relieved just to be breathing again, so when he attacked I still had my head buried and didn't see him go off the front. Mark was joined by Rick Martyn (VOS) who won my race in 2006, and also by Mark Caldwell (Morgan-Stanley).
I was still recovering, and when the pack slowed in response to this unseen (by me) breakaway, I drafted some Alto Velo riders to the front. Just in case there was another attack I wanted to be near the front! Well, they tried to form a paceline to chase the break, because they didn't have a teammate in it, but they were rather uncoordinated. Some riders had a chuckle at this, and also by my apparent desire to help them... I was actually just sitting on them and hoping to build a margin for error, but Eric Saltzman (Morgan-Stanley) explained to me that I had a guy in the break... ah-hah! It all became clear to me, and Geoff told me to just sit in, which made sense. If I recovered enough and Alto Velo got the chase going in earnest I could always block, per our original plan. But for now I used the precious reprieve to just breathe!
But Caldwell apparently didn't like his chances with the break and refused to pull when it was his turn. With the failure of this paceline assured, Martyn left, and Mark was left alone off the front. He too came back into the peloton, very disappointed. I'm not sure why Caldwell wanted to kill the break. Perhaps Martyn is a better sprinter, and would have won a three-up sprint finish?
[I later learned that Mark and his breakaway companions were off the front for a long time; about a full hour! During this time, that passed for me in a haze, Mark attacked them on every climb, working hard to tire them out because they are both good sprinters while he's a climber. This took a lot out of them, so in the last 3 or 4 miles they decided they were too tired to compete with him at the finish and dropped back into the peloton, organizing a chase with their teammates and shifting their hopes to their teams's other sprinters.]
With the pack together again, though now reduced to about 25, the pace was much easier. Geoff and I mostly sat in. As we approached the final few miles there was a gradual increase in speed, but nothing major. So when I spotted the winery building rooftops behind a ridge line, I was feeling much better than before. I cautiously moved forward a bit and kept alert to the usual antsy moves. Protect your front wheel!
The continuing headwind was from the right, so the smart guys hugged the left side of the lane to avoid giving anybody shelter. Soon it was jammed and guys were spilling over the center line. Danger! Well, I make my own way, so I looked ahead, saw the cones marking the last 300 or so meters and just powered smoothly to the far right into the wind, all alone. By doing this I at least forced them to shift several feet over and then match my speed if they wanted my draft. I was passing them quickly and was in the lead with a big gap as we hit the final, wider 200 meters. I expected a swarm to overtake me, but I buried my head for the long sprint and never did hear the tell-tale whoosh of impending doom, because it never came! But I did hear my teammates cheering me on as I crossed the line five bike lengths ahead of 2nd place Eric Saltzman (who beat Mark at Wente), followed by the swarm. Yee-haw!
I guess that since I am relatively unknown nobody was marking me. That gave me the element of surprise. By the time they realized I wasn't fading from my long sprint on the "wrong" side it was too late. I may not be that lucky in the future! [And I now know that I owe even more to Mark than I first realized. Without his hard attacks in the break I wouldn't have been there to contest the finish.]
My 55-mile race took me 2:37 total time, at 21 MPH average. (Results on USCF, photos and more on NCNCA.)
The downside of winning was having to wait around for the podium presentation, and I had time to drink two big bottles of water and a regular (!) Coke. I needed it. I felt bad for my teammates who had to wait around, though I was glad of their company. But the $125 in cash, neat T-shirt and ceramic bottom-bracket bearing kit were an impressive prize! What a quality event!
After Gary dropped us off in Aptos I drove home where Margaret greeted me with Queen's Bicycle song... how sweet! I repaid her support by taking her out for dinner at her favorite restaurant! What a special day!
Now, two days later, I'm starting to recover from the race, but I haven't lost the excited buzz I felt from the win... I still play it over in my mind and smile. This is by far my biggest cycling victory ever, and I owe so much of it to my friends on Team Bicycle Trip!