Monday, August 23, 2010

University Road Race Pro 1/2

By Mark Edwards

“I’ve never worked so hard to place so low” Scott proclaimed as I walked towards him after his race. Yea… I know how you feel…

This year was to be my 8th time racing the University road race. Each year I’ve done a little better, culminating with my 2nd place finish in 2009. This year, I trained harder than ever and hoped to be competitive for the win. Until, that is, about a month ago when I discovered that VeloPromo had dropped the 45+ 1,2,3 race for 2010.

Now, I understand as well as anyone that bike racing is by category. If you’re a 70 year old Cat 2 you should be able to race a 22 year old Cat 2. If you can’t, you should downgrade. But, its hard work upgrading, no one really relishes the thought of voluntarily dropping their category just because they’ve gotten a little older. So, most of us find ways to race smarter, handicapping with our advancing experience levels.

Most of the NCNCA race courses on the calendar provide ample opportunities for those of us more “senior” racers to exploit our hard earned devious equalizing tactics. But, not the University road race, this one’s unusual. No place to rest, no place to hide, ever. It’s “climb all out for 4.5 minutes, then work your butt off to stay on for the 2.5 minute descent before starting the climb again”.

Without the 45+ 1,2,3 available, I had the choice of the 35+ 1,2,3 or the Pro 1/2. I could likely get a top 6 out of the 35+, but top 3 would be impossible. Now, I’m not complaining, top 6 in such a tough group on such a tough course is something to be proud of. But, with my year long plan to go for victory out the window, I was having trouble willing myself to get psyched up to suffer the way this race requires with no chance of reaching the top podium spot.

So, what did I do? I walked up to the registration tent and said “Pro 1/2". Did that really just come out of my mouth? Oh well… its game on now. I had decided that, if a win is out of the question, why not jump in the deep end and see how long before the Lifeguards had to pull me out. So, off we went. A planned 20 laps, which works out to 60 miles and 7,000 vertical feet of climbing.

For the first time Nils and I would be racing together. I was really looking forward to having him there as a teammate in such a tough field. Nils is a fun racer to watch from the sidelines, racing with him promised to be even more fun.

The first half a dozen laps were fast, but manageable. They all felt well within what I do every week at the Team’s Wednesday hill repeat workout. But, instead of six minutes rest like in the workouts, we were spending two and a half minutes chasing to stay on wheels before the next climb started (University RR is a ~3 mile loop – you’re either going up or down the whole time). Nils and I stayed well positioned in the pack. A couple of times Nils went to the front for the final corner coming into the climb and created a little gap by flying through the corner. Like I said “fun to watch”.

The seventh lap was noticeably harder. A post race review showed an average power output of 433 watts for the climb. This pace would be far beyond almost all the top guys I normally race – even if they had fresh legs! Let alone on the seventh time up that hill. About 25% of the peloton was shed. Unfortunately, Nils was among the casualties.

The next two laps were similar to the first six. Fast, but well within what I was capable of. Then, once again, the stakes were raised on the tenth lap, summiting at 414 watts average. Hoping for a respite on the eleventh lap, I was to be sorely disappointed. A second consecutive 400+ watt lap proved too much for me. Painfully, I watch about 25 guys continue over the crest without me.

It was now time to go into time trial mode – for nine more laps! Not a very appealing thought considering I’d just popped and my legs felt it. I knew guys would continue to be shed from the lead group and hoped to find a few to work with. A good paceline can make the time go by much quicker. I was pulling back about one rider per lap, but each time I’d catch one in hopeful anticipation of working together, it was obvious the fight had gone from his legs. So, on I went looking for my next potential partner.

Around lap 15 my faith in finding another guy to ride with had faded. My back was killing me. Guys I’d been racing moments ago had dropped out and were now standing watching the race with cold drinks in hand. Temptation…

But, I knew my teammate, time trial specialist Nils, would never give up. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was back there, low on his bars, probably dragging three other guys.

The final laps seemed to crawl by. I could have sworn they forgot to change the remaining lap cards a few times. I went through feeling terrible, then a little better. I tried to get aero on the descents, and kept the pressure on the climbs. I was fumbling to find a semi comfortable position on the bike, and trying to avoid cramping, the thought of Joe’s treats, fresh from the Buttery, kept me going.

Throughout the race, Margaret and Michele were there every lap in the feedzone coaxing me to drink more. They succeeded, without them I would have had to drop out for sure. Also, several team members provided almost constant cheer for the entire length of the climb. I can hardly believe their perseverance for nearly two and a half hours, I’m very grateful. It helped more than you know.

My finish was much less uneventful than I’ve become accustom to. I rolled across the finish line solo, very happy to have survived. My reward? 22nd out of 54 starters at an average speed of 21.1 mph. My lowest finish in years, kind of funny considering I was in the best shape of my life, and worked harder during the race than I have ever before.

If I could re-run that day, would I choose the 35+ race instead? No way! Sure, it hurt – a lot. Yea, getting dropped is no fun. And, I wouldn't wish riding 9 laps solo on that course on my enemies. But, occasionally stepping up is good. Yes, I was over my head, but how amazing to get to watch these athletes at the prime of their lives from a truly front row seat. It’s also a great reminder not to take myself too seriously, while simultaneously opening the door for what might be possible…


Nils said...

Wonderful report, Mark. It was a fun race...and it's always the hardest thing I do on the bike every year. Looking forward to 2011!

Ken said...

Nice report and great effort. I knew I was going to get dropped from the 35+ race but enjoyed doing it. Disappointed that I broke my chain. My guess is that you are correct that you could have finished in the top 6 in the 35+ race. Hope they bring the 45+ race back for next year.

Benoit Pelczar said...

Awesome spirit, Mark! (not that I am surprised)