Last weekend, I competed in the Willamette Valley stage race. I raced the lowly Cat 4 event, but the competition was fierce nonetheless, as the race drew strong riders from a wide area.
The first two stages -- a flat, windy road stage and a short circuit race -- passed without incident. I finished in the pack in both races, saving my energy, however, I made a mistake that I feared would cost me any reasonable G.C. chances on the first stage. My biggest weakness in races is my inexperience, and I quickly lose confidence banging elbows and shoulders for position. I found myself shuffled towards the back of the pack for the finishing sprint, and I accelerated to what I believed to be a decent pack finish. Unfortunately, a few wheels in front of me, there was a small gap, and the referees decided it was enough to be worth a time gap. Accordingly, my group was posted fifteen seconds behind the leaders.
It's the morning of the third and final road stage of the race -- the more experienced categories also got a time-trial, but for whatever reason that competition wasn't on offer for the Cat 4's. This is by far the most important stage of the race: while only 80 km, (115 for the upper categories) the stage featured two major sequential climbs in the middle portion of the race, and a short, steep uphill finish. For the first time, I'm not ridiculously nervous on the start line. I know what I have to do, and I know I'm a decent climber.
A long neutral rollout builds the excitement for the peloton, and as soon as the official's car zooms away from the group, there's a strong acceleration from the front of the field. Things settle down into a rhythm fairly shortly, and I refuse to allow myself to drop lower than tenth wheel: I don't want any attacks getting off the front and escaping me.
A few rollers and a short descending section take us to the base of the first climb, and I start warming it up. I take the front, accelerating up the slight hills, forcing the pace to something I hope will begin to unstick a few people. Perhaps it's showing my hand a little early, though, as until we get to the top of the hill, no one's interested in coming through, and I don't want the pace to slow. No matter.
I let two other local riders lead the descent through the woods. It's beautiful out here! In no time we're at the base of the biggest climb of the stage race, and it's time to go. Since there's over thirty km to the finish following the climb, I decide it's not worth attacking and trying to solo to the finish. Instead, I click into the 21-tooth cog and smoothly accelerate into a hard tempo.
When I get into a rhythm climbing, my head tips towards my right shoulder, my eyes close partway, and I settle into the pain zone. We're out of the trees, onto the switchbacks of the mountain, and as the road steepens I need to briefly break my rhythm to shift down a cog. Besides that, I'm not paying attention to anything else: not the views nor the field behind me. This is the kind of sustained suffering that I can handle.
I see the lead car accelerate away around the final hairpin of the climb, and at last I take a glance over my shoulder. A few lengths back, there's one rider. Perhaps fifteen seconds down the hill, a second is gasping for air. There's no one else in sight. A slight false flat, a leg-burning final rise, and we're on the descent.
Descending is NOT my specialty, I'll admit it. The shady, wooded mountain roads are thankfully free of gravel and potholes, and we're FLYING down it. Maybe I should be glad I don't have a computer on my bike to see see how fast we're going, but if it were a training ride, I'd be hitting the brakes.
We get to the bottom of the descent, and over the series of small rollers that follow I trade pulls with the rider who's followed me. Once we're back out onto the open road, I know there's about thirty kilometers of flat until the finishing section: a gradual climb, another flat, and a short, steep hill. Unfortunately for a two-man break, there's a headwind.
The follow car pulls alongside us and gives us an update: one rider ten seconds back, a group of about a dozen at a minute and a half. We work together, going reasonably fast but not all out. My companion doesn't want to pull at full strength, wanting to save something for the finish once we are caught by the chase behind us. While I'd like to try to stay away, I'm not about to burn myself out and let him sit on.
Two becomes three as the rider behind us joins, but he's pretty spent. About halfway through the flat section, the chase catches us, and we become one break of fifteen. A few attacks immediately follow, but after a couple of K it all settles down into a rotating paceline -- we're going FAST.
Is this really a Cat 4 field?
Sure, we're not going fifty k an hour, but well over forty. The follow car comes up alongside us again to tell us the main field -- what's left of it -- is far out of contention.
The last ten kilometers of flat roads feels like an eternity in spite of our speed; I'm tired from all of my efforts, but I'm sure most of the break is, too. At last we can see the finishing climb in the distance, and the car rushes ahead and pulls off. This is it.
As the we approach the final sharp turn, the paceline disintegrates as everyone fights for position. Again, I'm hurt by my lack of aggressiveness; I'm probably tenth wheel going into that corner, and the leaders accelerate rapidly off the front.
The last climb is only about 750 metres, but at ten per cent I know it's too long for one sprint. I shift into my small ring, find a comfortable gear, upshift twice, and go as hard as I can. Sure enough, the group in front of me rapidly decelerates with 300 to go, and though I'm wheezing and seeing stars, I haven't slowed yet. Riders are cracking and legs are giving out. Time to go anaerobic. I pass half a dozen riders, and ahead of me is my original breakaway companion, a gap, and two more riders.
I know it's too late. I grab my big ring, stand, pass the rider in front of me, just a few meters before the line.
Third on the stage isn't bad, and ninth on GC for my first stage race isn't so bad, either, but I can't help but walk away from it saying "if only" again.
They have "anger management" courses.
Do they have "aggressiveness training?"