Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Madera Stage Race 55+

Madera Stage Race 55+ March 14 & 15, 2009 (photo: my break in the RR)
By Jim Langley

The Madera Stage Race takes place in and around the city of Madera, which is about 2.5 hours from Santa Cruz via 152 East and 99 South, exit at Cleveland. It's actually a reasonably pleasant drive, the big surprise a stretch of 99 just before town that's blanketed with a dazzling assortment of wildflowers - like your own personal greeting committee, confetti and all.

Scouting the Racecourses
We headed down Friday after work. I drove and Bob Montague (entered in the Elite Cat 5 event) navigated. Gary Griffin would join us Saturday morning and race with me in the first stage, the criterium. Bob had reservations at the brand-new and
very nice Hampton Inn ($80 a night, free wi-fi & breakfast), which was also the race hotel where the results would be posted.

But the first order of business was finding the criterium course so that we'd know where to go in the morning for registration and Stage 1. Thanks to Bob's pre-race reconnaissance and excellent directional skills (VeloPromo's directions made no sense at all), we found the crit, drove the course (in both directions just in case) and then spent about an hour driving the 20 miles to the time trail course and checking that too. Even though it was getting dark, riders were already practicing on both racecourses and Bob and I talked about whether or not we should have actually ridden the loops instead of driven them. Nah.

Our Own Mini Tour de France
We couldn't register until Saturday morning when we would receive what VeloPromo calls the "race bible," but we knew from the race website and entry
form that, though short, Madera is a real stage race. There's a crit, a TT and a RR. The person with the best time after all stages wins. There are time bonuses of 20, 10 and 5 seconds, for placing 1st, 2nd and 3rd respectively in each stage, and bonuses of 5 seconds each for winning the 2 primes in the crit.

If you miss a race or flat out or crash and can't finish a stage, you're out (though there was a note in the race bible that they would try to help racers who suffer "mishaps." Later I watched an example, when a team car for the Pro 1/2 pack zoomed past me during the road race, one of their riders taking a free 35mph tow back up to the pack after one of these mishaps.)

The stage and GC results are posted each night at the race hotel. We heard that 600 racers were at the race from all over making the hotel and racecourses fun scenes with almost endless vehicles, riders warming up on trainers and plenty of awesome aero bikes and wheels because of the TT. The 3 courses are all around Madera, the crit is in town, the TT is on farmland 20 miles away and the RR is over mostly flat roads with one roller section east of Madera via Road 600.

There were 26 guys entered in the 55+ including national TT champ Scott Hennessy, who schooled me a few times last year in road races, too, Mac Carey who got me on the line only last week at the Menlo Park Crit and also beat me at San Bruno, and Brian Fessenden who handily beat me at Cherry Pie. I had prepared very carefully for the race and was riding with the
goal of placing in all 3 events and the overall for which I hoped to receive enough upgrade points to finally get my bump to Category 2 racer [Late-breaking news - my upgrade request was just granted - I am now a Cat 2!!]. I didn't really expect to win any of the races with Scott in the mix as he's strong and very smart. He outfoxed me at several races last year where I thought I had a chance to win.

Bob Gets Taken Out
By now, most of you have heard about Bob getting knocked out of the race in a crash. I saw the whole thing, helped the medics at the scene, took care of Bob's bashed and bloodied bike and gear - and this all shook me up pretty badly. I lost all desire to race and was fully ready to drive Bob back home once he was patched up. But, at the emergency room, even though he was strapped to the bed to stabilize his neck and could hardly move, Bob made it very clear that if I didn't race he was going to be even more miserable. His doctors told me that he'd be in the hospital all day anyway, so I might as well race and come see him later. Bob's wife was already on her way to the hospital too.

So, feeling some of the worst butterflies I've ever had before a race, I drove across town from the hospital and arrived just in time at the crit course for a short warmup. It was nice that a lot of people saw me and asked how Bob was doing, which went on throughout the weekend. Nice people bike racers. I also found Gary who had just arrived. We took Bob's wheels over to the pit since Gary didn't have spares (thanks Bob!).

Racers - Start Your Engines!

I lined up on the front line and Gary took a position back a bit in the pack, and off we went for 20 laps around the flat 4-corner course, the only obstacle a set of railroad tracks. The pace was brisk but not anything like racing with the 45+, which I had done at Cherry Pie and Menlo Park. So, I stayed near the front but didn't do any work. I hadn't had any real warmup and my stomach and focus weren't right so it took a while to get into race mode.

I knew there would be 2 primes and thought I might have a chance to grab 5 seconds, but with speedster Brian Fessenden and a new Webcor guy, Greg Bolella (sp) in the race with excellent snap, I had no chance. So, I waited for the second prime, which took place with 7 laps to go. Brian and Greg shot away again, and I used the opportunity to attack from the back of the pack. Brian and Greg sat up
after the prime sprint and I told them to come with me, which they did. Karl Webber had chased me when I attacked and one other guy followed him. So, the 5 of us got a good break going.

We dropped the 5th guy right way and managed to stay away until the confusing finish. It's too complicated to explain but we ended up going across the line in our break rotation, no sprint, because we thought there were still 2 laps to go due to them taking our lap cards down not to confuse the also-finishing 45+ guys who started ahead of us (I told you it was confusing). I was 3rd wheel, so I finished 3rd and got a 5 second time bonus plus the 37 seconds we were ahead of the pack.

Looking Good After Stage 1
So, after the crit I was sitting pretty in 3rd place overall with a 42 second lead over Scott Hennessy and Mac Cary and all the other guys. Brian got a 20 second time bonus for winning the crit plus another few for taking a prime, so he was 20 seconds up on me and Greg took second and had prime seconds too so he was about 10 seconds ahead (I don't have exact numbers because I never got to see all the official results).

Gary and I signed out of the race (just like at the Tour, you had to sign in and out of every race), grabbed our spare wheels, loaded our vans and drove the 20 miles to the TT course. I was thanking Bob the whole time because I never would have found it on my own had we not driven out there the night before. We already got our start times at registration in the morning. Gary was off at 4:48 and I was off at 4:50. Scott Hennessy and Mac Cary were off earlier. As we got close to the course, it was exciting seeing the crazy fast riders breaking the sound barrier on their pedal powered missiles... some phenomenal machines out there and riders too.

Beat The Clock - Or Try To
Coach Mark had recommended to us that we save energy in the crit in order to do our best TT. Since I had gone a little crazy in the crit and gotten in the break I was wondering if I'd have the legs to ride a good time. Just like in any stage races the TT can decide the GC at the end. But, I told myself I could TT with the best of them and did a pretty half-ass warmup back and forth on the only stretch open to riders. Always-friendly Scott Hennessy was just two cars over and I noticed how expertly he was warming up on his trainer, which worried me, but I just didn't have the focus, energy or desire to warm up that hard.

The course was pretty cool: 4 miles of a slight downhill with almost a tailwind, 2 miles across with a crosswind, right turn, and 4 miles back slightly uphill against a headwind. The roads followed lovely orchards but the roads were trashed and there was another concern: BEES! All along two of the roads were beehives to help the fruit trees. And, what do bees do in the late afternoon? Return to their hives, of course. Meaning a high chance of stings. (I didn't get stung but a lot of riders did.)

They actually had an offical starter, a bike holder and timed starts going off every 30 seconds like
clockwork. No starting ramp, but otherwise totally professional. Gary went off powerfully. Right ahead of me was Jack Kelso/Hammer Nutrition, a body-builder-turned-roadie from Pleasanton. I was hoping to catch him as he was my 30-second man. But there was no way. I never even saw him after the start and as I was working it with all I had I started to get the feeling that there was a reason the guys had let us breakaway in the criterium.

Still, time trialing takes focus so I tried to shut off the negativity and put all thought and energy into applying the gas, riding a straight line, staying completely aero and breathing. On the amazing Look
596 Bob had borrowed for us to use I at least felt super fast and I thought I might have a chance on the uphill section to reel in the guys who hammered the down side.

As I hit this stretch I was hurting but I caught one guy, and then another, and then saw Gary. It was great seeing how aero he was because he was only on his regular road bike with clip-ons. He also looked strong and super smooth. It took me a long time to pass him and I cheered him on and then only beat him to the line by a few seconds.

The Race of Bitter Truth
You couldn't get the results at the racecourse since the heats would be going off for some time, so Gary and I got our recovery food down, signed out of the race and headed back to the
hotel to wait for the results to be posted and then get some dinner. The Hampton Inn was buzzing with races and it took a while to squeeze in to see our results and for me they were grim.

Jack Kelso won the TT crushing my time. So did Scott Hennessy and Mac Cary. They all put at least a minute on me. I took the time to write down their times and mine so I could work out how far behind on GC I was now since that wasn't posted.

The only good news was that I had finished 4th and put time on everyone else. It seemed to me that that might be good because it would motivate other people to have to work in the road race and that might take pressure off me. Maybe I could use that somehow. But, I wasn't too confident. With those guys taking so much time out of me in the TT, they were obviously stronger than I was and would be able to match anything that went on out there.

Rough Night
These thoughts left me pretty bummed Saturday night even after a nice dinner w/Gary at Perko's. After my great crit, I thought I had a chance to win the whole stage race. But, after seeing what Scott, Jack and Mac did to me in the TT, and coming in 4th and not even placing or getting a time bonus, I couldn't see how I could get that time back (about a minute) in a 51-mile road race on rolling roads with no major climbs to make up time.

It made for a bad night's sleep even on the Hampton Inn's surprisngly comfortable beds. I worked every possible scenario over in my mind. Could I get Brian and Karl Webber who were even further back on time, to work with me and establish a break? Not likely. The other guys would join forces and chase us down. Could I make time on the hills? According to the race bible they were short hills, so that didn't seem likely either.

Would Scott work with me in order to get the second back he lost to Jack and win the race? Maybe, but wouldn't everyone respond if the second place guy tried to escape? Definitely. Wouldn't Mac and Scott want to escape to beat Jack and take over first? Seemed reasonable. But, if I just tag along, I still only get third place. That seemed like the most likely thing that would happen and I tried to convince myself that getting 3rd would be satisfying. I would at least get the upgrade points I needed. That race scenario and outcome wasn't enough to ease my mind and I kept running it over and over in my head tossing and turning hoping I wasn't keeping Gary awake too.

The Badger Talks To Me
Then, somewhere around 2 a.m. I had a new thought, 'What would my idol Bernard Hinault do in this situation." And, the answer popped up loud and clear: "attack!" At the time I didn't know how to attack, or when to attack, or even why an attack might work. But, thinking of how Hinault rode made me think about that "rule" of racing that says, 'if you don't ever take a chance, you usually have NO chance.' Hinault was never afraid to take a chance.

I know I'm fit and thinking about it, I realized that I'd rather go out on a limb and see what I could do and die trying than sit in the pack safe, or ride the wheel of the leaders and finish a safe, comfortable 3rd. I didn't come all the way down here and train so hard and starve myself, etc. etc. for 3rd. Plus, I had firm orders from Bob to win the race and I had to at least try.

Bob and I hadn't driven the RR course (3 times around a 17-mile loop), but everyone was talking about the rollercoaster on the backside and roads rougher than at Copperoplis. I had actually changed to my stiffer cages for the race so as not to lose my bottles. But, I already had the advantage of tubeless tires that let me run 90psi, which takes a lot of the beating out of rough roads. We also heard the short hills on the rollercoaster were steep ones and I thought I might need my 27 but that turned out not to be true, my 25 was fine.

Karl Webber Attacks
As we rolled away from the little farm where the race started (somehow VeloPromo parked all of our cars in some nice guy's farm property - Gary and I were right next to a pen with four enormous pink pigs), the only challenge was the cold temperature at about 40 degrees, but the sun was rising. Still Mac Carey was shivering so badly he wobbled down the road enough to get asked by the other guys if all was well.

Gary and I rode smart and sat at the back not doing any work at all. I kept shifting up a gear to save my legs and I did a lot of coasting. What was cool was that the leaders' teams were at the front rotating and keeping the pace. As only two Bike Trippers in the field, and with me only in 4th, there was no reason for us to do any work, and no one expected us to.

We crusied along like this for a while but then Karl Webber, a top racer I remember from the 'old days,' and one of the guys in the break with me in the crit, rolled off the front. I moved around in the pack and spoke with Scott and a few other guys to light a fire under everyone to chase him down. I didn't want anyone to escape. We took it up to about 30mph and got him eventually, just before the rollercoaster section. This stretch was actually really fun, a lot like the 7 Sisters rollers at the top of Mt. Tam.

My First 'Natural Break'
The pack worked the hills, took some bottles at the feed zone and then we hit the windy flat section on the backside of the course. I started to realize that I had drank way too much coffee before the race and went to the back when the pace slowed in hopes I could take care of matters while riding. But, it wan't possible without asking Gary to push me along. That wouldn't be right, so I moved back up.

With each pedal stroke, though, I grew more uncomfortable and the road was only getting rougher and rougher. Just when I thought I would have to stop and chase to get back on, Brian rolled to the front of the pack, turned to look back, and hollered, "Does anyone else have to pee?" About everyone said yes and we then agreed to all stop, take care of business and resume racing after.

One of the guys called it a 'natural break,' apparently the proper racing term, and Gary remarked, "Now this really is a stage race." Which got a good laugh. It was a scene right out of the Grand Tours with a bunch of bikes laying in the grass and all the riders lined up watering the daisies. It sure saved the day for me.

Going All Hinault
As we started racing again, we were about 7 miles from the feed zone on the rollercoaster with one lap to go when we got there. It was time to do something or settle for a lackluster result. I wasn't settled on exactly how to attack but I remembered Arnie Baker's book where he talks about a fake attack to set up a real attack. This works because it's so easy for the pack to pull you back that they don't believe you can hurt them with your next attack(s).

I rolled off the front trying to look like I was working but really only hitting it a little. Jack Kelso who held first place sent his teammate Richard Shields up to mark me and I drifted back into the pack with
Richard who is a dangerous rider and could hang with me even at my hardest effort. I then went again. This time Scott Hennessy who was in second place sent his VO2 teammate up to mark me.

I wasn't sure whether to try to make this attack stick or drift back and try one more. I could see that we were approaching the rollers, though, and I knew I needed at least a minute, so I just went on instinct and decided now was the time to take that chance I mentioned.

The Escape
Instead of drifting back into the pack this time, I tried to act like I was easing up and I let the VO2 guy sit on my wheel, but when I saw that the pack thought this VO2 guy was doing their work for them, I gradually increased the effort on the pedals trying to look like I was just enjoying the scenery
when I was taking it up into L4 level like on my trainer. My red V02 shadow was hanging behind me and I think Scott and the pack thought he was in control of the situation. But, I was increasing our gap a few feet ever few seconds.

As we hit the base of the first of the rollers, the gap had increased more than the pack realized, I think, and I was pretty sure if I could just get around the first turn I'd be out of sight. So, I really gave it the gas and left the VO2 guy behind and I just went 100%, all-out, make-it-work-or-die-trying mode. I poured it on, flew over the fun rollercoaster hills and on the backside of the last one, I slammed it into the 12 and just buried my legs and heart rate for every ounce of speed. If I could get way out of sight, maybe they'd forget about me.

I knew that when the pack chased down Karl we had maxed out at 30mph so I felt that if I could average about 28 or 29mph, they wouldn't be able to close on me very fast and I had a slight chance to stay away. All I needed was about 40 seconds since a win would give me a 20 second time bonus too. I focused on the speedo, kept my head down and tried super hard to relax my entire upper body so that all my strength reached the pedals. I tried not to think about the uncooperative wind or the bumpy road that kept jarring me.

The whole time I was certain that they'd chase me down especially after being humbled by Scott and Jack and Mac the night before in the TT. Surely they'd turn it on and chase me down and drop me and that would be that. My stage race done due to a dumb breakaway move. But, I only had this one chance and I was determined to die trying.

Success and Luck
Somehow it worked, and I stayed away for about 20 miles, took first, put 3 minutes on the pack and won the RR and the overall stage race. Afterward I talked to Scott, Brian, Jack and Greg and I learned why the attack worked. Mainly it was because there was indecision among the race leaders and their teams as to who should chase me down. And, since they didn't organize quickly and never really got focused and made a serious effort, my all-out, 100% race to the line was better than the entire pack's half-hearted attempts to bring me back in.

Ultimately it was a very lucky thing because they could easily have chased and caught me. But, I'd like to think that I won due to excellent fitness that let me ride an awesome last 20 miles alone and into the wind most of the way, some solid proven tactics just right for stage races, and the interesting possible dynamic that I was maybe fresher than they were in the road race since they had gone harder than I had in the TT.

My First RR Win As A 55+
Regardless of what really made it happen, it was a huge win for me. I should now have the upgrade points (and then some) to be a Cat 2 and I finally won a 55+ road race and my second stage race (the first one I won was way back in 1980 in Vermont!).

Gary had a great race too and should post his race report soon. And, in other super news Bob is already on the mend and back on his trainer even. Amazing.

In case you're interested in doing the Madera Stage Race, I highly recommend it. The only caveat is the high entry fee of $65 versus the cheap prizes. For winning I received $20, a cowboy hat and a T-shirt. Not so good, but we don't do it for the prizes, do we? And, check it out - Matt Werner made me my own Yellow Jersey! SWEET ;-) FULL RACE RESULTS HERE.


Dennis the Mennis said...

Very impressive Jim! Now we have a stage-race champion among us!

Satin Matt said...

Congrats Jim! A well deserved victory, and very inspiring to the rest of us.

Jim Langley, Champion du Madera.

Erico Vinicius said...

Congrats Jim! I begining in this thing, and every day of training I dream with my first victory. You inspire me so much...

Erico Vinicius

bcben said...

Upgrading to Cat2 at 56 - that is really something! There can't be very many of those. Being a 56yr Cat2 is one thing, but upgrading to Cat2 at 56 is a whole other animal. You've got to be one of the few!