By Mark Edwards
I’ve got to tell you, sitting here at my kitchen table the morning after the Orosi road race, I’m really wiped out. That was one hard race. I can’t remember ever being this tired the day after a race. I’m sure 3 hours of sleep prior to the race and 7 hours of windshield time didn’t help, but mostly, 54 miles in a four man break is a lot of work.
Matt and Matt met at my place at 4:00 AM, groggy and somber we loaded our gear. Jim showed up, already working on his first Starbuck’s caffeine boost, he livened things right up! Jim kept us entertained with his bottomless cache of hilarious stories. How can one guy find himself in so many crazy situations? I was the only one that had raced Orosi before, so I filled in the few quite spots with descriptions of the course and possible strategies. The trip down went by quickly.
Orosi is a tiny farming town east of Fresno right at the base of the Sierra foothills. Grain silos, large high school billboards, and pit bulls everywhere, it’s a very different atmosphere from the coastal congestion we’re accustom to. We arrived in plenty of time, parked 50’ from registration, changed clothes, and rolled out of the high school parking lot to warm-up. Nearly every racer we passed warming-up had a loose dog to warn us about, Orosians sure like their dogs.
Hanging out waiting for the start we had the chance to catch up with several of our co-racers. Then it was time to race. We started with a social paced promenade for the first three miles, meeting new guys and continuing to catch up with others. The promenade complete, the group stayed fairly mellow as we approached the climb and extremely rough pavement. Where Copperopolis is one big collection of pavement patches, bump after bump, Orosi is more a series of shallow pot holes – almost like an asphalt netting. Just as rough, but very different.
Last year Jon Ornstil attacked the bottom of the hill so hard I was constantly on the edge of getting dropped. It was the hardest I’d ever worked and still stayed in contact. Usually when I’m in that much pain I get dropped. Approaching the climb this year, I was understandably nervous.
I don’t know if the pace was a bit easier, if my form was better, or if knowing what to expect as far as rough pavement made the difference, but the pace was manageable. Not easy mind you, it was quite tough in fact, but I was able to stay in the group for the climb. Different this year, Jon had help from climbing sensation Clark Foy in keeping the pressure on. While both great climbers, Jon and Clark have very different styles. While Jon goes out hard and keeps it there (with the occasional surge thrown in for good measure), Clark goes to the front and you almost feel like he’s easing up. Like maybe you’re going to get a break from Jon’s relentless driving. But it’s an illusion. Clark is so smooth, once on the front he ups the pace in nearly imperceptible increments. In short order you find yourself in respiratory distress, all the while he’s spinning smoothly ahead.
As we neared the top of the first five mile climb I was concerned that the group was still too big. I’d hoped for the opening climb to do some major damage. This Race attracts a small field, it’s remote, and includes a lot of tough climbing. Everyone signed up was considered a good climber, no one else would bother. But a glance over my shoulder would reveal there was no group! There were only four of us left. Steve Archer, Jon Ornstil, Clark Foy, and myself.
Steve appeared to have been tested on the climb, but Jon and Clark looked like they were spinning down to their local coffee shop. We quickly organized and started working together. There was no urgency to our riding; I think we all expected to be chased down. The longer we stayed away the more I wondered if we’d be caught. Nearing the end of the first loop we had a couple of 2 mile views behind us, no one in sight. It appeared we’d stay away; we started to push a little harder.
I’ve raced with Jon and Clark many times and have a lot of respect for them. Besides phenomenal athletes, both these guys are great to be around. They make choices in their racing that consistently acknowledge that riding hard, camaraderie with their fellow racers, and personal integrity come before winning.
I’ve also been in several races with Steve, but before yesterday, hadn’t really spent much time with him. I have to say, Steve is amazing. Corny as it sounds, I came away from Orosi a better rider having raced with Steve.
As we approached the big climb on the second lap, Steve pulled along side of me and let me know he was cooked. He advised me not to sit on his wheel, he expected Jon and Clark would gap him and if I was behind him I’d have to close that gap. He also said he was just hoping to hold on long enough to keep from being caught by the chase group.
Jon and Clark once again went to the front and set a strong pace up the five mile climb, Steve hung in there. Once on the rolling flatter section, I was again able to come to the front and contribute to moving us briskly towards the finish. While Jon and Clark have an edge over me climbing, I think I’ve got a slight advantage on other terrain. I was only too happy to be able to pitch in where I felt stronger.
About ten miles or so from the finish I threw down a couple of attacks to try and gauge what the other guys had left. It’s always hard to tell, but it didn’t appear anyone felt any fresher than I did. It was still early, so I didn’t want to destroy the great work we’d been doing as a group, so I slid back into the group and took a fast line down the twisty narrow descent. As I felt I was the most comfortable on the descent, I figured I could gain us a few seconds over the chase group with the other guys following my line.
Steve had sat in a good portion of the second lap. As we turned the corner four miles from the finish he went to the front. Now here’s the classy part…. Steve put his head down and hammered. I was on his wheel and could tell he had been racing for nearly 60 miles, but he actually seemed to be gaining strength. I was watching for him to signal me to come around, but he never did. Looking over my shoulder I could see there was no chase group for miles, so we weren’t in danger of being caught, but still Steve pulled. I was mentally getting prepared for the finish. Obviously it would come down to a sprint, but how would it play out?
We made the final right hand turn marking two miles of gentle climbing to the finish line. I pulled up next to Steve and thanked him for the pull, to which he responded “you guys did all the work, it’s the least I could do”. Then he pulled back into the lead and continued to pull – he didn’t have to do this – but obviously felt it was the right thing to do. The next time I’m in a position like Steve was in this race, I hope I have the integrity of character to do exactly what he did. He could have sat on all the way to the finish, but instead he worked his tail off, and then gamely contested the finish having chosen to intentionally level the playing field.
The finish area is confusing. And we got confused. There’s a tent in the feed zone 200 yards before the finish and the spectators group at a spot between the feed zone and the finish. Each of these three points is only visible as you reach the preceding one. Steve was setting pace, I was on his wheel, Jon and Clark were behind me. I was listening intensely for a gear shift from behind to warn me that the sprint was on. Snick, clunk… there is was. Jump! Clark went wide to the left, he was coming by fast. I looked up and could see the feed zone tent was still way far off, but Clark’s an aerobic animal, if anyone could make a 400 yard uphill sprit he could. So I had to go. I came around Steve, but he unleashed a powerful surge. I got around him, but clearly he wasn’t planning to gift this win to anyone.
Clark faded, funny how an uphill sprint really zaps the legs. Just as I was thinking “Great!”, I figured out we’d been sprinting for the feed zone. Duh! I went by Clark fast, but knew I was in serious trouble. I could see the spectators beyond the feed zone and hoped I could hold on, but my legs were cramping, I was breathing so hard I almost drooled on my top tube (give me a break, it was my first race on my new bike – I didn’t want to get anything on it). My speed was down to probably 12 mph (remember, this was supposed to be a sprint). A quick glance over my shoulder didn’t work, my vision was too blurred. A longer look still took a while to process, but as far as I could tell I had 30 or 40 yards on Clark and the gap wasn’t closing. Maybe I could hold on…
10 yards from the spectators, I didn’t notice any officials. Oh yea… that’s right; the finish is another 150’. Crap! This was cruel!
How could I not be caught? I couldn’t even turn the pedals. I was wobbling, trying to keep my balance; it must have appeared I was in slow motion. One more look back… still a gap… I think I can make it…
First place Orosi road race 45+.