By Mark Edwards
What a Team! Two weeks ago we got schooled by Morgan Stanley on how not to race. This week we were back, each of us had done our homework, we were ready to rumble.
Similar to Wente Vineyards road race, Morgan Stanley showed up with a serious show of fire power. In fact, on paper they were even more impressive for Berkeley. Two former professional cyclists and a multi time World Champion would be calling the shots for a team of 13 racers in a field of 60. Add to this the fact that Team Bicycle Trip was the defending champion, and it’s pretty easy to see that we’d be attracting some unwanted attention, the same type of attention that effectively shut us down at Wente.
Russ, Geoff, Dennis, Jim, and I had been exchanging emails all week; what could we do to offset Morgan Stanley’s advantage? We checked with anyone that would listen and came up with a strategy we hoped would be effective. Our pre-race tailboard oozed with enthusiasm and optimism, we might not win, but we sure weren’t going to hand the win to anyone today.
I don’t want to imply Morgan Stanley was our only concern. VOS, Wells Fargo, Webcore, Safeway, and a host of other teams all had super strong guys intent on winning. We’d hoped that, with Morgan Stanley’s various advantages, managing their threat would keep us well positioned for whatever surprises anyone else threw at the peloton.
This race is 2.7 laps of rolling terrain with several quad busting climbs. It’s a combination of high paced short climbs and numerous attacks that slowly eat away at your energy and strength. The first lap is typically fast, with nearly every attack answered immediately.
We were all on hyper alert. No one was going to walk away from us for an uncontested win today. All five of us stayed in close proximity to the front and carefully studied each attack. Dennis, Geoff, Jim, and Russ rode amazing races. The casual observer might have thought they were just sitting in, but in truth, they were ready to shut down anything dangerous. It was impressive watching them work. Every breakaway was evaluated. Not a threat? Leave them out there. A couple of strong teams represented? Wait… there goes some one! Catch a wheel… all back together. We only ended up having to chase a time or two. Perfect! We were playing this just right; it was likely all five of us would be together for the final lap. I liked those odds.
Son of a b**ch! What the hell was that? A rider near the front swerved erratically for no apparent reason. A wave of reaction rolled through the peloton. I heard a tire blow, and down went about 5 guys. The crash was behind me, I didn’t see it, but it turns out Dennis fell victim. Too banged up to continue (but not seriously injured – him or his bike) he hopped in the sag wagon and was stationed at the finish to cheer us in the final sprint.
The run up to the major climbs that mark the race finish is a rolling series of twists and turns. At this point, the group was tired, you could read it the body language, and hear it in the breathing. There was also a noticeable slowing of the pace, seems there was a consensus to take a little break before the dreaded uphill finish; a consensus that somehow didn’t get Jim’s vote.
Jim went to the front and dropped the hammer. It was beautiful to watch. Strung out in single file, guys strained to keep gaps from opening. It appeared Jim didn’t have any intention of letting the weary recover anything that might come back to bite us. After what seemed forever, Jim tired and pulled off. The peloton let out a sigh of relief. I’ve trained and raced many miles with Jim, I wasn’t so sure he was finished with the group. Sure enough… There he went again! Stretched to the point of breaking, it was obvious most of the 30 riders left wouldn’t present much of a threat on the final long climb to the finish.
Jim pulled off again, damage done, his amazing service to the Team greatly appreciated. He’d earned the respect of every aching body out there.
We were now very close to the finish. Morgan Stanley’s desperate cries of “We can’t win a drag race! Attack! Do something!” were answered time and again by their many solders. It was clear they were tired; you had to be impressed by their willingness to push themselves well beyond a normal person’s pain tolerance.
There’s a slight roller just before Papa Bear, the main climb with the finish line at the summit. Morgan Stanley sent a rider off hard just before the roller. It appeared this attack was doomed, but you never know… Less than a mile from the finish, Morgan Stanley comes to the front and starts blocking, peloton apathy takes over… and before you know it… you’re racing for second place. I was on Russ’ wheel and he was well position to neutralize this attack. I asked him to shut it down, he effortlessly closed the gap to a manageable 75’ or so. At this point I said “Wait for the next attack! Sit up” which we both did. We weren’t disappointed. In short order a dozen guys threw themselves at that hill like it was a 100 meter flat sprint.
Geoff was with Russ and me, deciding against a solo attempt due to threatening cramps, he had saved himself knowing he could climb with the best out there, giving Team Bicycle Trip both a second high placing and backup should I falter.
While I was in stunned disbelief last year, I expected the insanely early and hard attack this year (the climb is probably nearly a mile at 8 to 9% grade – similar to upper Bonny Doon, from the conveyor to Smith Grade). So, I went with it. As with last year, it soon petered out. I couldn’t see the finish, but it still seemed like we had a good ¾ of a mile to go. And now, things were starting to bunch up.
What to do? Heck… this is what I train for, I attacked. Hard. I got a gap and kept the pressure on. The hill flattens slightly at the top, then continues a bit before the finish. You can see the crest for quite a while, but not beyond. In your mind the crest becomes the finish, or at least close to it. But it isn’t. This is the worst feeling. Your legs are fried, you’ve given everything you think you can. Then you see that the finish is another ¼ mile away. Argh…
We were passing one of the women’s groups to our right. I kept glancing over my left shoulder; a Wells Fargo rider was making a valiant effort, slowly closing the gap. When he reached about 100 feet I thought “Damn! Maybe I can let him catch me? I’ll try to recover in the process, then nip him at the line.” My next glance showed that the gap had started to grow again. Cool! But, my legs were wobbling. "If I can just keep the pedals turning, I think I can hold on for the win." 200 meters, legs screaming in protest, “damn it’s taking a long time to reach the finish.”
Checking the gap again, it was continuing to grow. I gave in to the pain just a little and eased slightly on the pedals. It didn’t really feel any better, but I’d been in the wind the entire climb, I was surviving. I went by Sam Cerruti and he let out a cheer that cut right through the crowd’s noise. That was so cool. Then, for some unknown reason I decided to check over my right shoulder, the side where the women, heads hung low, were grinding there way to the top. What the heck?!? There was a Safeway guy coming up fast between the women and the gutter! Sneaky!
Well muscled, this guy looked like he could sprint. He launched an attack and appeared he had the legs to back it up. I came out of the saddle. We were wheel to wheel. “So close… I can’t give in. I must have a little something somewhere?” I thought about all the Wednesday nights out on Coolidge, I thought about all the times Joe, Dennis, Russ, Jim, Geoff… heck practically the whole team, had taken any opportunity to best me in the sprint to the top. “I know that pain. That pain passes, I can do this! I’ve done it dozens of times in training.” With a tug on the handlebars and a surge from the legs, I lunged across the line. Winning by a wheel.
What a team!