Thursday, October 4, 2012

Race Around Lake Tahoe Report

At the start (about a third of the team)
Race Around Lake Tahoe Report
Saturday, September 29, 2012

2:59:52! Team Symantec gets it done
by Jim Langley

For me, this was the second attempt at the Race Around Lake Tahoe with Team Symantec. Our goal: to get team founder, captain, sponsor and class act, Enrique Salem across the line under three hours. That's the gold standard at Tahoe and not so easy.

The team has tried to cover the supposed 72-mile course (some Strava files say it's a bit shorter) under the three-hour barrier without luck, including last year when we crossed the line in a frustrating 3:02, a victim of traffic jams, bad roads that forced dismounting and walking; and we probably needed a few more teammates to stoke the fire over the tough final miles of the race. Tahoe is at elevations around and above 6,000 feet and the thin air takes the starch out of your sails sooner or later.

Rolling to the official starting line
This year we brought a bigger team and added to that with friends who wanted to help, like Chris and his up-and-coming racer son Sam. I think all told we line up with close to 20 riders planning to work as a unit to crack three.

While it was nice to have the help, it got confusing figuring who was on our team and who was just using our teamwork to drag them to their fastest time. But one of the fun things about Tahoe is how many of these people thank us at the finish for helping them set a new PR.

Instead of staying in the team house, Mark Edwards and I decided to use the trip as a mini vacation, and with our wives, got campsites in the Zephyr Cove RV park. It's perfectly located right at the start of the ride.

For you history buffs, I was amazed to learn that the Zephyr Cove Resort where the RV park and the restaurant/beach where the race starts, was founded in 1862 and has been in constant operation since! Nice place to stay and it has a beautiful beach, too.

Mark and I met up in the morning just 30 minutes before the start and wondered if we should bundle up more since it felt cold with the sun not up yet. We decided to just wear arm warmers and headed over to join the team. I was laughing at Mark's mandatory helmet timing chip that was sticking straight up, making him look like a California quail - you can see it on everyone in the photos (I taped mine flat).

One of the quirky Tahoe traditions is that the starter fires a double-barreled shotgun. I wasn't paying attention and about fell off my bike when the blast went off and we tried to get into our pedals ASAP and rocket up the fairly long climb the race starts with.

And we're off! Team Symantec on the front
Right away, I was too cold, so I hit the hill with the leaders and went hard up that first wall. It didn't do any good and by the top, my hands were frozen. I had to back off a little and pick my position carefully in the bunch because I couldn't feel my levers to brake or shift.

The first 10 miles or so were crazy with squirrelly riders, cops racing alongside the pack on both sides sirens sounding and then stopping in the road to halt traffic but also risking us by stopping right smack in our lane. You're following wheels and you keep hitting ruts and potholes left by the constant construction around Tahoe. This caused some near crashes as riders dropped bottles, others ran over them and guys swerved and braked to stay upright. Not exactly a race peloton, that's for sure. More like a century ride on steroids.

As we put some miles behind us and I needed to get some calories down, my hands were still gone and I couldn't eat or drink for fear of dropping my food/bottle or running into some wobbly rider in front and crashing. We eventually saw the sun and got rid of some of the tired riders as we flew up the steep climbs over Emerald Bay. Enrique was riding super strong and sticking tight.

No stopping at South Lake Tahoe's casinos!
Emerald is always where the strongest riders open a small gap and that happened again. Our goal is to ride as a team and get as many riders as possible, and especially Enrique, across the line under three hours, not to win the race. So we let them go. Maybe next year we'll try to set someone up to break the course record of 2:50, which would mean winning a $500 purse, too.

Our team was intact until about halfway around the lake. Once over the climbs at Emerald Bay there are some sweet descents on wide, smooth roads with epic scenery that you're going too fast to see much of. Then the road becomes more rolling and you have to earn your miles. The team kept the pace high and every time I looked forward I'd see our yellow jerseys setting the tempo at the front.

Then things started going wrong. Mark had to pee so bad he was forced to stop, so we lost one of our strongest riders. He couldn't take care of business while riding because an official car was following the lead pack.

No time to stop and enjoy the view either
Later Steve and Dennis flatted. So, with only the climbs over Spooner Summit and the rollers on the way back down to the finish at Zephyr Cove to go, we were in danger of not going any faster than last year, even though we had brought even more riders.

Around then, I asked Dave how we were doing, and he said something like, 'We've only got 14 miles to go and 30 minutes to do it; we'll make it easy.'

I liked his optimism, but we definitely weren't going anywhere near 30mph, and the pack was tiring, slowing and not working together at all. I panicked and started hollering obnoxiously at the team, trying to get guys to ride a proper rotating paceline so that we would speed up.

This didn't work at all. They were probably too tired. They'd get to the front and sit there and we'd go slower and slower. The same for the non-Symantec riders. Instead of adding fuel to the fire and increasing our pace, everyone was essentially getting to the front and blocking so that we went slower and slower.

Enrique (yellow rim) does it!
After yelling a bit and not getting any results, and guys just clogging up the front, I did what you have to, and started going to the front and trying to raise the pace myself. Kirk Carlsen, a pro recently signed by Team Exergy and who rides for our team at Tahoe, was way up the road, and luckily for us, he turned around and came back, saw the situation and started helping.

Dave was charging to the front too, and then Pablo, who motors on his tri bike, got in the game. And just like that, we got the pack flying again and kept it going faster and faster keeping the rotation going.

Meanwhile, Enrique was right there and took some solid pulls to help the effort, as did John. The climbs over Spooner were painful but we fought to keep the pace high and keep everyone together. Then we absolutely bombed the descents immediately leapfrogging each other, going faster and faster, clipping the corners, matching the speeding cars in the fast lane just inches away, and then sprinting maniacally over the rollers in-between the downs as if we were 16-year-old juniors in our first race instead of a bunch of desk jockeys.

Still, as we came into the finish, I chanced a look at my watch and it didn't look good. The race start time was 7 and my watch had just hit 10! Some of the guys had computers and assured me we had done it. But I wasn't going to believe it until I saw the official results. Which showed that we barely broke 3. My time was 2:59:52 and I think everyone was right around there in our little group.

The winning time was only 2:57, so I believe we actually gained ground on the lead group late in the ride. I'd like to find out how fast we could go if we rode a true rotating team-time-trial paceline the whole way. I have to think we could go much faster.

The last sub-3 guys
Mark rolled in just a couple of minutes behind us. He told me that after stopping, he helped teammate Melissa (Dave's wife). She ended up winning the women's masters division. After that Mark started chasing us in earnest. I am pretty sure he would have caught us, but he took a wrong turn (the course was not marked and there was no course marshal) and had to climb 3 hills over a part of the course where we were taking the correct route which was mostly downhill. So, Mark added distance and time and only finished 3 minutes behind us or he would have broken 3 I am pretty sure.

I feel bad for him and Steve and Dennis, and the other guys who just got dropped. But getting around the lake in under three hours takes as much luck as fitness. I'm sure they'll get it done next time. I am glad I broke three this year and have that monkey off my back. Thanks for all the help out there Team Symantec!

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