By Mark Edwards
Pro wrench Jim Langley saves my bacon… again!
But, before I get to that, what a wonderful day. In stark contrast to my last Sea Otter, with alternating gale force winds, moving ground fog, and torrential rain, today was perfect; 70 degrees, clear blue skies, and a light breeze off the ocean. Throw in a car free course, top National talent, and varied, challenging, and beautiful terrain, and you’ve got the makings of one heck of a race.
On the start line, Cale Reeder looked fit and ready – having won the Sea Otter circuit race the day before (along with nearly every race he’s entered in the past year); his commanding lead in the 2010 BAR lending further credence that he’d be the one to watch. Cale would have teammate Hunter Ziesing for help. Hunter gets my vote for most improved racer. He’s been riding better than ever, so we’d have to keep a short leash on those two. But wait… who’s that guy in the Stars and Stripes? Janne Hamalainen, out here from Tennessee, winner of last year’s Sea Otter RR and current 45-49 National road race champion, and… teammate to Cale and Hunter from the new powerhouse Team Echelon. All of the sudden, what had appeared to be a fairly level playing field, wasn’t. It had tipped decisively towards Team Echelon. With no other teams able to match Team Echelon’s depth, it would be up to a very talented gang of individuals to try and contain this cycling juggernaut.
We were scheduled for 8 laps. Two main climbs per lap, and a deceptively long and steep finishing climb, we were in for 69 miles, and three and a half hours of pain. We started on time, promenading about 3.5 miles to the start of the loop. Then it was…. GAME ON!
Immediately, John Novitsky, reigning National Time Trial Champion, locomotive extraordinaire, and all around nice guy, went right to the front and put the hammer down. Unlike the rest of us, who like to jump to the front, do a little damage, then tuck safely back into the peloton to rest, John hammered us for three straight laps. Even when he started to fatigue, falling back on the climbs, he would keep the pressure on, catching us on the flats, only to resume his position at the front. That guy has an engine and will that just won’t quit, probably one of the reasons he’s the best in the Country.
Anyone familiar with Henekens climb on this course knows that 8 times up it was going to turn all but the hardiest legs to Jell-O far before the final climb. By the forth time up we were down to 7 guys. I felt okay - I was even tempted to attack - but I knew we were less than half way through the race, and feeling good now could easily turn to cramping up and getting popped two laps from now. Plus, attacking my breakmates so far from the finish could easily kill our efforts, allowing additional riders to catch back on.
As we descended from the forth climb, something didn’t feel quite right with my bike. The pavement is crap in several areas on this course, “it’s probably just vibration from a rough section” I thought. About three miles later we hit the 10 mph hairpin. I followed Janne’s wide line through the turn, but nearly found myself in the bushes. WHAT THE HELL??? Looking down, my front tire splayed wide at the contact patch. OH NO! Not a flat, not now! It was still ride-able, but very squirrely in the corners, and probably not too safe on the 45 mph descents. What to do? What to do?
I kept an eye on it while I tried to stay with my 6 breakmates, ultimately I would ride 8 miles on it. Remarkably, fate was smiling on me. We reached the base of Henekens and I remembered Jim was near the top shooting pictures and cheering Geoff and I on. If I could get a wheel change, I would probably at least stand a chance of chasing back on. I alerted my breakmates that I had a flat and was going to try to get a wheel change. My luck held when they seemed agreeable and didn’t attack me. I accelerated off the front, Cale chased, but Janne quickly called him off, “he’s got a flat!” I kept the pressure on, trying to gain precious seconds for my pit stop. Where was Jim? Had he left? Wait… there he is, closer to the top than I’d remembered. I was breathing pretty hard from the effort, so I worried that calling out from a distance, my plea for assistance wouldn’t be understood (especially yelling something Jim wasn’t expecting).
But let’s remember who we’re talking about. Pro wrench Jim Langley, mechanic to the stars. I yelled “I need a front wheel!” I was 20 seconds away and flipping opening my brakes. By the time I reached Jim he was kneeling with his front wheel in his left hand. I rolled to a stop directly between his knees. With a skill honed over years of riding, racing, crewing, and wrenching, Jim had my wheel out and new one back in just as my group rolled by. A couple of seconds to secure the wheel… and the chase was on. I caught the group before the top, then immediately went to the front to take a pull. I wanted to show my appreciation to these guys for refraining from attacking me while I was down.
The next couple of laps we alternated between working well together, then not. Coming into the “other” key climb for the second to last time, Cale and Janne attacked hard. Immediately I cramped… bad (in fact, sitting here the morning after, as I type this, my right calf is still plenty sore to the touch). Those two sped off, with Jan Elsbach (showing race winning form today!) and Mike Vetterli in hot pursuit, but losing ground. I was back with David Passmore and Cris Williams of Park City, and… I was pretty sure they were about to drop me. Both quads and calves had cramped, and I was far from recovered. Apparently they didn’t have anymore left than I did, we re-grouped and got to work limiting our losses.
Reaching Henekens for the final climb, I felt good enough to set a steady, but hard pace. I dropped my chase companions and caught Jan and Mike. We started working well together, but it wouldn’t last. About two miles later David and Cris caught back on. Coming up ahead of us was the climb where I’d cramped on the previous lap. I was nervous I might cramp again. I went to the front and set a hard, but not brutal pace, hoping to discourage attacks. It worked… Jan, Mike, and I had a gap and started to rotate. Cris caught back on. Cale and Janne had about a minute and a half on us; and a lock on first and second. That left the four of us to battle for the remaining three podium spots. After the long stairstep descent there’s a short hard climb. I attacked and dropped Cris. Jan, Mike and I went to work securing our podium positions.
Turning right off the loop, we started the final 2.6 mile, 600’ climb to the finish. I suggested we work together to cement our podium placings - then duke it out in the final mile. It seemed reasonable to me… Mike took off! Hmmmm, seems maybe he had a little extra left. I felt good, but was still feeling the effects of my cramps. One mis-timed surge and I could seize up again. Jan caught Mike’s wheel and we sat on him as he attempted to drop us. Mike started to fade, Jan went around him. Slowly he upped the pace until Mike popped.
We were maybe a half a mile from the finish. I was pretty sure I’d recovered enough that I could drop Jan, but he’s a scrappy racer, not someone I’m likely to underestimate. I knew that historically I’ve got the better late race sprint, but I wasn’t entirely confident how well it would work on an 15% grade – and that I wouldn’t cramp up again. I decided to put my faith in my sprint. Even though I doubt I was getting much draft on the climb, I did have the advantage of being able to watch his every move. The fact that he didn’t start a game of cat and mouse also suggested he suspected I might have more than he did in reserve. If I was in his spot, I’d just keep riding hard – guarantee myself the 4th spot on the podium – or maybe things would work out and hang on for third.
The finish was 100 yards closer than I’d figured in my pre-race reconnaissance. So my planned sprint landmark had to be moved at the last minute. 50 yards from the finish (a short sprint on a flat course, closer to eternity at 15%) I double shifted and went for it. There wasn’t much about what I was doing that could even loosely be compared to what Mark Cavendish does at the end of a race. Slow motion, riding in molasses, two flat tires are all better descriptions. About the only person that could tell I was accelerating was Jan, I inched away as he easily kept his forth place finish safe.
Janne and Cale took first and second about a minute and a half ahead of me (reversing yesterday’s Circuit race results – dominating this year’s Sea Otter road races! Thankfully both these guys will be in a younger age group than me at Nationals this year). Geoff came in with an impressive 9th place, once again dusting guys who devote twice the time to training that he has available. Way to go Geoff!
Oh… and did I tell you about the real life Podium Girl ;-)