Another race I had some reservations about. Many people consider this the toughest road race in Northern California. The road surface is mostly horrible, there is a wickedly nasty descent, hard windy sections, and two climbs per lap. Plus, last year I did this race only a few weeks after crashing at Madera. I got dropped before the first climb and ended up having to get off and walk part of the way. Not very inspiring. I was in better fitness this time around, but I still came in wondering how I would fare in this hilly and windy race.
As we lined up at the start, I was sorry to see that Miles had not made it. I hope he is well, and I regret not having had the opportunity to work for him in this race. Still, we had close to 50 guys at the start and we were off for our two lap event. The race starts with a descent over roads that are nothing more than a quilt of patched potholes. With few exceptions, this is the state of the road throughout the race. For my part, I find that I actually kind of enjoy the ride that you get over this surface, not so much rattling as settling once the status quo sets in. The road climbs up past the feed zone before descending again going into the major climb. On this first lap, I was in the back half of the group and my legs were feeling really good. As we went up the climb, I was surprised that the leaders were not pushing the pace harder. I was riding comfortably when I realized that a number of those around me were breathing very heavily and some were starting to drop. I was focused on staying on the wheel of Nelson Frink from Davis Cycling Club. Nelson had been at the Topsport Stage Race the prior week and had taken 2nd to my 3rd there. I knew he was a strong rider and I expected that his wheel would be a good one to get me to the top. As we crested the climb, we were on with the lead group, but I would guess that the total had been cut in half. A few of the dropped riders got back on, and I would estimate our number at around 30 at this point. Things stayed that way for the remainder of the first lap, but I didn’t think the pace was as hard as it had been in the road race at Topsport the week before. The group had 4 Cal Giant riders controlling the race at the front and there were 4 riders from the Fighting Bobas. My team was me.
We got through the first lap and began the major climb for the second time. The pace was definitely harder this time and guys started dropping off pretty early. I was still hanging onto Nelson’s wheel when I realized he was cracking. As I came around him, I urged him to get on my wheel, but he wasn’t able to hold it. I continued up the climb in pursuit of the leaders but feeling my own resources begin to fail. Still, I pushed myself as hard as I dared without going into blowup territory, and as the leaders crested the climb, I would guess that I was no more than 25 yards behind. Amazing that when I crested the climb, the leaders were probably 150 yards ahead of me with a group of 3 more riders, 50 yards behind them. I pushed myself up to speed and took a moment to recover. I looked behind and saw no one coming for me to work with. The lead group did not seem to be pulling away from me too quickly, and the 3 behind them were starting to chase ferociously. I decided that my only hope would be to chase back on, alone.
I put my head down as low as I could and began to chase. I tried to make my effort as hard as I could sustain for an extended period of time. I didn’t have my powermeter, but I would guess I was riding at or close to the top of my zone 4, or equal to my best ever efforts up the climb at Bonny Doon. I’m guessing that I chased for close to 20 minutes, from just past the crest of the climb to about 200 yards before the road makes its hard left back into the cross tailwind. I knew that if I didn’t get back on before that turn, that I would not be getting back with the leaders. Along the way, I could see that I was making up ground on the group. Still, I was a long way off and 2 of the 3 chasers had managed to bridge back up, leaving only one man between me and the leaders. After 10 – 15 minutes of chasing, I finally managed to bridge the gap between myself and the lone chaser. I urged him to work with me, but he claimed he had nothing to give. I got him to take a couple of short pulls that allowed me to recover somewhat. However, I could see that we were losing ground when he was pulling, and I could also see that the sharp left hander was coming sooner rather than later. I told my man to stay on my wheel and launched. Unfortunately, he was unable to stay with me, but I had to continue my effort or give up the race. I still had about 50 yards to make up to get back to the lead group. Even so, I did not go all out. That was the choice I had made at Bariani, and it cost me. I had gotten back to the group at Bariani, only to fall off immediately because I was blown up. This time, I gave a steady hard effort that was indeed major for me, but I held back enough so that I could give some more after I got back on. I didn’t want to chase for 20 minutes only to be attacked and dropped again immediately. This day, I made it. The group gave a bit of a surge when I got back on, but nothing too big and I had enough left to stay with it. Then recovery. I sat in, took in some drink and some Hammer Gel.
I could feel the drain of my effort coursing through me, but still, I was exuberant about having made so successful a long chase. I looked around and saw that I was one of 12 riders left in the lead group. A glance behind told me that no one else would be coming. The finish was approaching, but first we had the second of the two climbs to ascend. My legs continued to feel better and I began to try and figure out what my best chance was for a good result at the finish. I was worried about how my legs would fare on the final climb and the descent that comes after was on my mind as well. However, I realized I only had to pass 2 guys in my group to get a top 10 finish in this very hard race. Anything beyond that would be gravy.
The climb and the descent turned out to be everything I had imagined they would be. I was at the front at the start of the climb, but off the back by the top. There were 8 or 9 guys together at the front, with me off the back chasing a couple of other stragglers. I attacked the descent as hard as I dared and made up some ground on the other two chasers. Still, I overcooked one curve and found myself begging my bike to stay upright under the pressure. It did and I backed off a bit from that point on. I could see that I wouldn’t be able to bridge back to the lead group, but I felt I could probably catch and pass the other two guys off the back at the bottom of the descent or during the final uphill battle to the finish. I allowed myself to recover as completely as possible during the remainder of the descent and began a steady and very hard effort immediately thereafter. I soon passed both riders ahead of me at about the 1 KM sign and began to wonder if I had gone too soon. I looked back as I was passing the 200 M sign and saw the Giant rider about 20 yards behind winding into his sprint. I downshifted and came out of the saddle as hard as I could, but my legs didn’t have a whole lot left in them. I sat back down and shifted into an easier gear that allowed me to spin up my cadence. I looked over my shoulder and saw that the Giant rider was gaining on me, but really wasn’t doing much better than I was. That gave me the inspiration to continue upping my cadence and I succeeded in pulling away from him to the line. I was pretty excited about finishing 10th in such a hard road race until I went by the results booth and learned that I can’t count. Rather than 12 guys in our final group, there were 13. I finished 11th. Even so, I am very pleased with how this race went for me. I really feel that I could not have ridden any stronger or smarter. The journey continues.