By Mark Edwards
What’s 50 miles long with 50 power climbs, has 15 death defying high speed technical corners, and has nearly 4,000’ of climbing?
It was the 2009 USA Nationals Masters Road Race Championships in Louisville Kentucky. More criterium than road race, it was 1:55:07 of the most intense racing I’ve ever done.
With 80 of the Nations best masters racers, and an average speed of just over 26 mph for two hours on this hilly course, this was one tough race.
After watching Jim’s race the day before, it was clear I needed to be ready to rock from the start. The start/finish line was Pro Tour in every detail. At the gun we would drop into a series of three serpentine descending corners, the last would push the limits of tire adhesion. Getting gapped off the rear behind unprepared racers could end your race before it even started. I lined up in the second row (after several delays), clipped in smoothly, and rounded the first turn in the top twenty.
I had pre-ridden the course four times on Sunday, four times on Monday, and twice Tuesday before my race. It paid off as I railed the first technical corner. Holding a fast steady line, as many others struggled braking and losing their line, I was positioned comfortably near the front for the first climb. Riders attacked hard as we approached the climb, but slowed near the top. Viewing this as an opportunity to inflict a little damage, I kept the pace high, cresting the climb and on through the flat section that followed. My hope was that this would keep the pressure on the guys who’d been caught behind the gaps that inevitably form on hills.
By the third lap I’d gotten comfortable that my fitness was competitive and I’d be able to animate the race at a few selected points. I was obvious I couldn’t be reckless, as the field was clearly deep with talent, but I was confident I could be a player. We also had a break of three up the road that didn’t seem to me to stand a chance of surviving, staying away for seven more laps just didn’t seem possible.
Around the third lap I was hoping to go into the blind right left descending corner that followed the first climb at the front of the peloton. I knew this corner, and knew gaps would open as riders hit their brakes. I came into the hard right hander a little too hot. The slightly off camber bumpy pavement was too much for my speed. I felt my front, then rear tire start to slip. Staying calm, I rode it out, exiting the corner with a twenty meter gap to the second rider. On the plus side… it forced the guys behind me to close the gap while I rested… but it wasn’t worth the risk to try repeating that again.
The blind right left descending corner was followed by a fast descent which rolled into a short power climb. Ten times we went up this, and ten times there were multiple attacks on this hill, one right after another. I was able to start this climb near the front each lap and drift back with each attack, saving precious energy each time.
The descent off this roller was followed by a long flat section, punctuated by a punchy short climb, and then more flat. The entire loop was a big ring power fest. Cochran climb, the longest and steepest of the loop was next. This ½ mile 8% climb was a favorite spot for the strongest riders to try and thin the herd. NCNCA strongman, and perennial Nationals favorite Kevin Metcalfe, threw down several impressive displays of power here. Each time we’d sprint over this climb in our big ring, I’d look back to assess the damage. The pack would be strung out, but not broken. Each time I was amazed to see 45 guys responding and surviving the brutal attacks.
As with the other climbs on this loop, I’d hoped keeping pressure on after the climb would wear riders down. Unfortunately the Cochran (AKA Dog Run climb) climb was followed by a hairy 12 mph descending switchback, allowing stragglers to catch back on.
Once over Cochran, it was mostly a flat run to the finishing climb. Every lap this climb was taken at a break-neck pace. Fear of getting dropped kept me near the front, and a couple of times saw me attempting to continue the painful pace over the top to the next descent. With no long climbs, the pressure had to be kept high in hopes of weakening the group.
Jim and John Novitsky had been cheering me on while sprinting from one location to another. In my haze of race concentration, Jim and John’s cheers from all over the course made it seem like I had dozens of supporters. Pretty cool… thanks guys.
Seven laps in, Kevin attacked in an attempt to bridge up to the three leaders. I jumped and heard someone say “there he goes!” referring to Kevin. I bridged to Kevin and saw we had about a 30 meter gap. Not enough… as we were reeled back in short order.
On the final lap two guys went of the front. The group didn’t show much interest in chasing them down, as they were left dangling 50 meters off the front. It would pay off for them in the end, as the peloton would start to bicker in the final miles, allowing them to keep their gap to the finish.
Coming into the feedzone at the base of the finishing climb, the pace was coming to a boil. Unfortunately, this is also were we caught a sizeable group of lapped riders. Between the feedzone, several slower lapped riders, and 45 guys sprinting on a single lane around a curve, it was mayhem. I saw three guys jump and I immediately came out of the saddle… but the two guys in front of me didn’t react. I sat back down and looked for an exit. Kevin was next to me and in the same predicament. I moved around my guys just as someone swerved and caught Kevin’s front wheel. Next came the sickening sound that’s usually followed by a crash, but not this time, Kevin stayed upright.
No sooner did I get around these guys and found myself once again blocked. How could this be happening? Where I had been sitting top ten, I now found fifteen guys ahead of me? Oh yea… lapped riders. Looking for a clear path, I once again cringed as another rider moved into Kevin’s wheel. This time Kevin called the guy out, but his chances were now over. There’s only so much you can overcome, even for a rider with Kevin’s skill and experience.
Maneuvering around the latest block I could now sprint… but wait… the finishing shoot narrowed the road from twenty feet to fifteen feet. The steel barricades (with their steel feet extending 18” out) were on my left, riders on my right, I had nowhere to go. I kept the pressure on, but couldn’t safely unleash a full sprint. I came across the line in 9th place.
Somewhat disappointed in that I’d left too much in the tank, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way. I had set what I thought was a stretch goal of top ten for this race, figuring that 6-10 riders would be a step above my fitness level, and several others would finish ahead of me through superior skill and experience. It turns out that I never felt in trouble and that this course just wasn’t tough enough to thin out such a talented field.
In hind sight, I’m very pleased with how I raced and finished. Top ten in my first Nationals, and being able to instigate a little action, has left me with some great memories. I couldn’t have made it this far without the support and encouragement of the Team and all my great training partners. Thank you.