By Dennis Pedersen
I've never raced the State Criterium Championships before, or been to Clovis, just north of Fresno, or been to a race with "Medical Control." I was able to check all of those things off my "bucket list" this weekend. While I was not excited about the 3-hour-long drive alone, I was happy to escape the chilly drizzle in Santa Cruz for a bit. This was my first year in the 50-54 age group, so I figured it was as good a year as any to try to win a coveted California State Championship jersey.
When I arrived in quaint Old Town Clovis I got to see John Schaupp race in the 55-59 field, and former teammate Amy Russo stand on the top of the podium for the Women's 45-49 race! Congratulations!
The flat course had 8 turns through a nice older downtown neighborhood, with clean, smooth pavement. A slight wind kept temperatures comfortable in the mid-70s. The announcer was none other than Bruce Hildenbrand. I warmed up a bit and ate a gel, feeling very relaxed and strong (thanks in part to advice from our team coaches!).
At the start line we counted just 17 riders in our field. I figured that would make for a safer, more fun race. On the other hand, most of them were guys with a legitimate chance of doing well, not just novices. Our race started a few minutes late, about 11:15, and was to go for 45 minutes.
When they blew the whistle we all clipped in and I was third wheel, right on World Champion Larry Nolan's wheel (Team Specialized Racing Masters). That's always a nice start! But he soon tired of being followed around and pulled out of the line and dropped back. The guy in front of me (I think from Team Bicycles Plus/Sierra Nevada) pulled for a couple of laps. Nobody came around, but he seemed happy to pull.
Then came our first attack: A rider in a black/red/yellow kit I didn't recognize jumped hard into turn 3 and soon had a nice gap on us, maybe 15 seconds, that he held for a few laps. Pretty impressive actually. But we soon caught him, thanks in part to me taking a hard 1-lap pull. I always debate whether I should pull, but I almost always end up deciding I should, in the interest of keeping the pace high and the race safe (worked; no crashes, in any of the races all day!).
After we caught that guy Larry jumped in the same place, into turn 3. Everybody reacted instantly and it started to feel like a real race! He didn't pull for too long though, and I really think it was just his idea of a hard tempo pace to string the pack out, not an attempt to escape us. Because after a few turns he looked back to see if anybody would pull through; they didn't. So, the pace relaxed again.
A few guys took pulls, as did I again, but it was clear most guys just wanted to conserve energy for the last lap. Smart, but boring. I think others started to feel the same way because then a guy from Safeway, I think Jonathan Laine, jumped ahead and gapped us for a little but was caught after a hard effort. Same went for the black/red/yellow jersey guy when he again attacked. Larry tried to speed things up again and when he was done pulling he even made an exaggerated sweeping gesture to get others to pull through. He said to me, "Dennis, nobody else wants to pull," which I took as a compliment to my humble efforts. Neither of us had teammates so it was incumbent on us to shape the race as best we could, though it is always frustrating when team riders don't appear to be making the same effort as we solo riders. That's just the way things are, it seems.
I was gasping a bit at times, but still felt good. I was really hoping the 8-turn course and small field would equalize things a bit for the guys just trying to rest at the back, since our pace would be smoother at the front and our draft would be weaker than in a big field, but I know I burned more energy than most of them did. Even so, with just a handful of laps remaining I was able to repsond to the increasing pace and even dared to hope I could be fresh enough for a strong sprint.
We were now hyper-alert, and a very hard attack from a Davis Bike Club rider was caught, barely. I was happy I could breathe for a bit at that point! Then Jess Raphael (VOS) really jumped with 1/2 lap to go... yikes! I'm not sure it helped his teammate, but I saw an opportunity to execute my own plan: I had decided early on that I wanted to start my sprint rather early, maybe 300m from the finish line, so I could avoid being squeezed against the curbs in the last turns and pushed back. And that's where Jess ran out of steam. As I flew through turn 7 I went hard around him and did a seated sprint into turn 8. I remained seated and spun fast toward the finish line ahead, with maybe a 20- to 30-foot gap, keeping close to the left barriers to deny any draft from the headwind slightly from the right. I really thought I might soon own a California Champion's jersey!
But early sprints are always risky and with just 50m to go several guys flew by me on my right side, while my lungs heaved for oxygen. Darn. I was hoping for a podium finish at least; while I think I counted 5 guys ahead of me I actually took 5th, per the official results. Sadly, while the podium had 5 steps on it, they only gave awards to the top 3: Steven Giles (VOS), Larry Nolan and Tim Lydon (San Jose Bike Club). I applauded them anyway, while hoping for a better result next time.
It took a long time before my breathing returned to normal; I really did give it all I had. I tried my best and finished honorably, proud that I had animated the race as best I could while still finishing well. And the 3-hour drive home was nice and relaxing, with beautiful views.