As the day approached, I started feeling an inordinate amount of angst about it, though. Weather forecasts looked dicey. I was feeling over-(s)trained. I'd thrown away two crits on stupid errors and been way too close to some wrecks. I was not at ease.
Driving up to Page Valley, the sky alternated between beautiful sunny day and quick downpours, but I'd come prepared: since my race bike likes to take on water, I'd packed the Fuji as a backup. The Fuji is heavier, but sports compact chainrings and a wider cassette, so I felt like I was covered, either way.
I arrived to find the parking area bone dry with gorgeously clear skies and temps hovering around 90, a bit cooler than most of my recent racing efforts. We set up the team tent, unpacked, handled registration, and my mind was finally starting to settle down. I'd even decided to chance whatever weather might develop and ride the Blue. I was ready: toolkit gone, 2 water bottles, rear blinky removed. Game time.
Roll-out was the most neutral ride I've ever done. Alastair could have out-paced us EASILY at 12mph for the first mile. But when things heated up, they did so quickly. With no fanfare whatsoever, the pace jumped from 12mph to 30.
The first run up the Category 4 climb was probably a little slower than I expected. I didn't realize we were on it until Daniel told me, and then it was over. The little kick at the top was the only part that felt a bit rough, but the group was really tight and all over each other. Moving around was very difficult, and only when guys misjudged their proximity to the road's edge was I able to move forward. I found my comfortable 6-10th wheel spot only by the top of the feed zone, by the finish line, which was really convenient for the steep run down.
My bike is apparently very mechanically efficient. It descends like it's been shot out of a gun. The whole run down, both the very steep drop down Balkamore and the gradual descent of Fairview, I was on the brakes to stay behind the leaders. I didn't want to run off the front and burn up matches (or teammates) unnecessarily.
As the second lap began, a break formed ahead. Three riders were out, and a long lead-out was probably 50 meters back. One big dude decided to bridge, and I tucked under his wheel to cross...apparently with everybody else. But the break point had been revealed, and I knew what to expect the next time around.
Meanwhile, dark clouds had crept in toward the bottom of the course, and the motorcycles dropped back to inform us that we would go the whole distance, in spite of serious weather.
Climb #2 was a bit tougher, but still a lot slower than I had anticipated. Was everybody holding out for a blistering attack on the 3rd time? I made the turn before the feed zone and popped out front just a bit to put down a proper climbing pace, and looked back to see the whole pack about 25 meters adrift. I sat up, not wanting to expend further, and was re-absorbed for the descent (braking the whole way).
At the start of the 3rd and final lap, the lead group broke away with a blistering attack. I tried to bring the pace back down with a short pull on the front, but looked back and realized there were only a dozen or so of us, with no other riders in sight. Not seeing any risk of the attack failing, I dropped into the paceline. A few moments later, the weather hit. It went from dry to squall in less than a minute, with over an inch of standing water on the road and rain so hard you couldn't see more than 5 bikes ahead. If anybody had chanced a break-away, we wouldn't have known. The rain was ice cold, and the water sloshing up from the tires was warm and muddy. My visor was almost useless at keeping the rain out of my eyes. I couldn't see the Garmin to know if it was even still working, and for a while I had to breathe like I was swimming. I had no idea where I was, but I knew there was a pretty solid descent with a hard right at the end, so I started trying to build heat in the brakes early. No dice. There was just nothing there.
When the turn came, everybody had dropped the pace considerably, and one guy did run off the front. The rain let up just enough that we could see him, and magically the paceline settled down and reeled him in slowly up the Category 4 grind.
When I say slowly...I mean really really slowly. I'm not the best climber in the world, and my bike's deepest gear is 39/28, but the pace had slowed enough to where I was turning about 60rpm in that gear. It felt like a Herculean effort to get to the top, and guys were checking up left and right.
Suddenly I wasn't so sure I was going to be able to hold out to the end, and I got stuck in my least favorite position: the middle line, second wheel. I can't think of a more dangerous place to be at the end of a race. The guys left and right were not budging an inch, and in the run to the final turn, the guy in front of me checked up.
I saw it coming and had gotten on the brakes early, but it was still waaaay too wet for them to be effective. We overlapped, he jigged left, and our wheels hit. I had just barely gotten the brakes to start doing their damned job when it happened, so it was more a brush than a solid hit. I'm sure the guys around me appreciated that fact, because while I got squirrelly, I held it together.
But now I was kinda pissed, and when we turned that final corner, I was ready to run off the front again. 1K to go. Dudes start standing on it. But the one thing holding me back is that damn centerline rule. I'd seen guys pulled for it during the race, and didn't want to throw the whole race over it. I didn't know if it would be enforced on the final 1K, so I didn't press the attack until a hole opened in front of me. I chased the two riders who had broken free, fumbled around with gearing a bit, realized I was already down in 39/28 again (grrr!), and buckled down for what was going to be a very taxing grind to the finish line.
I was sure I'd be caught. That's way too deep a gear to try a hard run, and with RPM already low, I figured somebody with a compact setup would just come rolling by me. But it never happened. I didn't catch the two ahead, but nobody came up from behind, either. I crossed the finish line 5 seconds behind 1st place, and we had a few seconds to recover before anybody else came through. The three of us just looked at each other in disbelief, none of us sure if someone else had beaten us.
The rain paused just long enough to get back down to the cars, where we ended up shivering and celebrating under the baller team tent under another hour of heavy rain.
When I got home, the bike had about a cup of water inside the frame, and more inside the wheels. I was amazed to discover that the BB and headset bearings seemed ok. Now all I have to do for Bryan Park tomorrow is to remount the tires and go racing!
My good friend Mr. G likes me to recount what I learned in each race.
- I definitely learned the limits of braking in heavy rain, but I think running in a 35+ group, we probably all have things outside of cycling that are more important than bragging rights, so I'm not sure anybody was willing to press the braking issue all that hard.
- I learned that when the end of the race is near, and the temperature is dropping quickly, you probably don't need the contents of your spare water bottle. I dumped mine after seeing another racer do the same, and while I was thirsty after the race, I drank enough wheel water that it didn't impede my performance. Not sure the weight savings helped me secure that podium position, but weight is weight, and my bike was adding to its own while I was dumping that water out.
- I learned that you can recover from a wheel-to-wheel hit.
- Probably most importantly, I learned that when the guy in front of you jumps out of the saddle for a standing climb, he's going to pull the bike backward into your wheel. Not sure how best to process and apply that lesson, but I'll certainly add it to my list of things to watch out for.