Monday, July 21, 2008

Watsonville Criterium, 45+

By Dennis Pedersen

Methylprednisolone Adverse Reactions:
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of muscle mass

That's what I read on the package insert for the medicine my doctor prescribed to treat the huge swelling and rash I experienced after being stung by a wasp on my ride home. Not what we usually associate with a drug in the steroid family. I only mention this so as to set your expectations, because my legs actually felt fine... it was my lungs, and my brain, that failed me in this race!

Last year I finally figured out that I'm a sprinter, albeit a small one at 150 pounds, and have been trying to figure out which courses suit me best ever since. I have raced this technical course, set in a nice residential neighborhood near downtown, in 2005, 2006 and 2007, with fairly promising results. Watsonville's twisty, tight, fast 3/4-mile criterium course, with a short hill, seemed to match my power profile and lighter weight, but now I know better!

My teammate Joe Platin was first to sign up, and Geoff Drake also did, even though he was recovering from a chest cold. I knew this race would be fast, but I was hoping that our interval workouts had prepared us well. And even if I couldn't deliver for the team, a climber like Joe might be able to. Or if a strong break developed perhaps Geoff could join it and do well with his amazing endurance power. Bases covered, right? Well, the best laid plans...

I had scoped out our open-category 45+ age-group competitors beforehand, and knew that Larry Nolan (Team Specialized Masters) would be tough to beat, or even hang with. But that didn't mean we couldn't have fun trying our best. Since our small field was combined with the 35+ race we also needed to know who to watch there, so we could go with any promising breaks.

We lined up on that pleasant afternoon, serene in our belief we would do fine. Mark Knutson (Team Santa Cruz) was there as well. I was right behind Nolan, determined to watch his wheel. Geoff and Joe looked comfortable too; that ended just seconds after the official blew his whistle and the pack sprinted off at full speed and up the hill for the first of 24 laps!

I was, in fact, right with Nolan for a while, but then on the back stretch I heard him shift gears and move forward. I didn't think too much of it, but by the end of that lap, on the hill, I saw that he had somehow vaulted all the way up to the front!!! Gasp! That reminded me to move forward in the field instead of trying to sit in the middle of the pack, a mistake I had made in 2006 and didn't want to repeat. The many tight turns, wind, and the hill, all create gaps in the peloton that we then have to work very hard to close. That is very tiring. It is better to set a hard, but more consistent, pace near the front, thus avoiding the constant redlining efforts of those stuck in the back.

It was too late for me: We had gaps forming even on the second lap, and pretty soon the size of these gaps increased. Joe and Geoff were looking good, and I was feeling strong, but when I moved forward I saw a gap form ahead of me, and I then had to sprint to close it. Then another gap formed, and again I had to close it. It was like trying to climb up a rope that was no longer secured, like in a cartoon!

Up the hill on lap 3 or 4, Geoff had a gap ahead of him (he had done a better job of being near the front!), and I had to really dig deep to get around him and keep the pack within range. I couldn't look back, but heard later that Geoff "pulled the plug" because his lungs were just not clear enough yet. Bummer.

After a few turns I had caught back on just as, you guessed it, the guy at the back let a gap form ahead of him. I needed some recovery and couldn't get around him, so I had to draft a bit and hope for a slowdown. I had lost Joe, and couldn't afford to wait for him, and it turned out that he dropped out, or got pulled, soon thereafter anyway. So, I ended up working with this guy for a few laps. We did take turns, and after a while somebody else joined us from behind. The three of us rode our butts off for a couple of laps until they dropped out. I was so exhausted I could hardly see straight. There is just not enough time to recover on this course, unlike at Coyote Creek where the longer laps allowed us some recovery time. In short, Watsonville favors time-trialers, not sprinters! I rode alone for a lap or so, losing ground, but then I too got pulled. I was kind of relieved!

My race was just 21 minutes long! I joined Margie, Mark, Scott and Chris on the sidewalk on the hill, where they'd been cheering us on, and watched the carnage continue. Two of my pre-race 35+ picks, Eric Easterling and Brian Bosch (both of Sierra Pacific Racing), had teamed up and formed a break that stayed away. Even Nolan, who tried to bridge up, couldn't catch them. Soon there were only two or three guys left in the 45+ field; if I had managed to stay in I would have been guaranteed a podium spot!

I briefly considered entering the Elite 3 race to get a full race workout, but didn't have time as we were going to my nephew's graduation party. Instead I rode a 50-mile workout on Sunday to punish myself!

So, what did we take from this race? No trophies, but lots of lessons. We were all surprised: Geoff and Joe by the furious pace, and me by the apparent ease some of them (e.g. Nolan!) had in moving forward. I was again reminded of what my friend Chris Tanner says: It's better to be at 95% effort and well-positioned than at 75% but poorly positioned, though I usually associate that with a sprint finish. Had I worked harder on the first lap, like Nolan did, to move forward instead of conserving energy for a sprint, I might have finished that race and been on the podium. Instead I spent a lot of time fighting the wind bridging multiple gaps, trying to ride even faster than the guys up front but starting from far behind them... a recipe for failure.

Oh well. There's always next time!

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