I love this course, 4 laps on 11.7 miles of small country roads in the rolling Sierra foothills north of Merced, and signed up for my third time. But, February weather can be messy and, as in past years, I kept checking the miserable-looking forecasts up until Friday afternoon. At that point the forecast changed from "Rain and snow showers. Highs in the upper 30s and lows in the low 30s" to "Mostly Sunny, 50° high, Chance of Precip: 10%, Wind: NNW at 11 mph." That forecast, and carpooling with Bob (racing 45+ 4/5), was enough to get me to commit to race.
I picked up Bob in Watsonville, after scraping ice off my windshield, but there was no sign of rain so we were optimisitic that we weren't driving 3 hours just to get hypothermia. We even stopped for breakfast in Merced. It was a bit cool, but with gorgeous sunshine.
Neither of us had teammates to race with so we both knew we had to race conservatively to do well. The race always starts with a 1.5-mile neutral roll-out which is all the warmup I need. So we both suited up in our new team kits and lined up for our 12:40 and 12:50 start times. New for 2011, we have timing chips mounted on our bikes (see photo).
I knew from my past races that I needed to be near the front to watch for attacks. The other times I raced here the win went to breakaways and I was determined not to miss any. But this year the wind was a little less strong and from the west... that would change my tactics a bit. I won the field sprint in 2008 by sprinting early and the tailwind this year would make that more important.
As soon as the motorcycle referee signalled our race start two guys, one from Team Bicycles Plus (I think Lance Newey), attacked hard into the wind. In seconds they were 200m ahead of us. But they never gained more than maybe 20 seconds on us and were caught a mile or two later. A few others wisely tried attacks on the back section of the course where we had a tailwind, but they also were caught.
Just after we started the second lap, Bill Dunham (Alto Velo) attacked solo and opened up a nice gap. He held it for a while and a few other guys took turns bridging up to him. Some dropped back, only to be replaced by others, and it turned out this break stayed ahead of us for the next 2.5 laps. I never joined it because I had reason to believe they wouldn't last.
- The lack of strong winds encouraged us to work together and prevented cross-wind sections from giving the small groups an advantage.
- Their lead never grew beyond about 20 seconds.
- The large teams were not generally represented in the break, so I thought they would chase them down later.
I was right: On our last lap we were just behind the break and toyed with the catch. But we were also staying as fresh as possible for the finish, so we'd get close then back off. I kept riding conservatively while also working to stay near the front, only once or twice taking a short pull at the front. On the back section Jess Raphael and John Laine (both Safeway) took several strong pulls at the front reducing the gap to maybe 100m. But we couldn't rest yet, and others started to lend a hand in the effort.
I knew I needed to be near the front. I was doing well, but after we caught the break, maybe 1km from the finish, we slowed and soon the pack jammed across the whole road making it hard to advance. Then a surge started as we approached the last turn of the race; a hard right turn leading onto the 300m, slight uphill to the finish line. I was in the wind a bit, and somewhat blocked, so it took a few seconds before I could respond. Then Michael O'Rourke (Safeway) jumped all-out before the turn, just as I had planned to do but couldn't because of my poor positioning.
By the time I got around that last turn I was already well behind the leaders. But I also knew the sprint was 40 seconds long, so I just set a hard, steady pace up the slight hill, passing guys along the way who went too hard, too soon. I was actually able to gain on the three guys behind O'Rourke, but ran out of room and finished 5th, so I was still pretty jazzed! And now I have another masterpiece T-shirt.
Bob and I were both pretty happy about our races and very happy we got to enjoy such unexpectedly pretty weather. Next weekend we'll be back in that area for the Merco Foothills Road Race. I am looking forward to it!