Race Report: Longbranch Senior State Championships
When your first race after upgrading to Category 2 is also the state championship road race, you're bound to be a little nervous, right? I was, at least. Longbranch's rolling course was pretty solid for an all-rounder, with two gradual little risers and one short, steep wall. We'd do the whole thing seven times, making around seventy-five miles. I definitely wished this could have been a longer loop; although it went by quickly, it gets pretty boring doing the same thing so many times in one race, and there is only so epic you can make an eleven-mile lap!
I was unsure of what kind of pace to expect, but I'd heard one of the big differences in the elites (open men, senior pro/1/2, or whatever you feel like calling it), compared to the cat 3's, is that it's almost always "on." This proved to be true. There'd be an attack, a break would form, and whoever missed it would chase the thing down, and then someone else would attack, so with the exception of a few moments when everyone was trying to sort out what to do, there wasn't a lot of resting to be had.
This kind of profile is one of the hardest courses for a skinny guy like me: the hills are too flat or too short to really shell people off, and the descents are shallow and straight enough that you need to pedal down many of them to keep your speed up. This means I'm getting a little respite up the hills, and drilling it to stay on down the hills. On the first lap, my nerves are still getting the better of me a little bit. Sure, I shouldn't care. I shouldn't bother to think, "holy crap, I am in a 1/2 race!" but, I was, a bit. I mean, it doesn't get any faster than this. Just on a year ago one now was of my first "real" races, the Mutual of Enumclaw stage race. I was duking it out with the 4/5's. I still have my Category 5 license from 2006. I think I'll hang onto it.
When we got to the wall the first time, I don't think I was really paying attention until I realized that the big ring wouldn't cut it, that I was at the back of the field, and that things were stringing out pretty seriously. Oops. After making sense of my gears, I take a moment to wonder how people did this kind of thing when they had to fiddle with downtube shifters, and promptly run it off the road into the gravel to dodge someone going backward in a hurry. Oops, again. I think I'm fine, but then a pretty serious pothole dislodges my Garmin Edge from its precarious little seat on my handlebar stem. Those things cost quite a bit more than the entry fee to the race, so I swing off my bike to swoop the thing up.
Thankfully, the pack wasn't in TOO big of a hurry up the wall for the first time, and while catching back on was no problem, I am now solidly at the back! And, my plan to have exciting data about the race to marvel at as I waste time on the computer is foiled. Oh, well. Time to race. It's tough to move up unless I am confident. In the cat 3 field, people will pretty much let you do whatever. Here, everyone holds their line pretty solidly, and no one minds a little wrist-bumping to stay in place. It's a little unnerving until I get used to it. When things string out a little bit I get about halfway up the pack, and things are cooking pretty quickly. At this point the jitters have worn off, and I'm just racing, but I am still probably being a little too conservative: I have no idea what's going to happen next. Are the two Symmetrics guys goiung to suddenly hit Warp Speed? Will the Toyota-United rider's "Hybrid Synergy Drive" kick in?
The second time up the wall, I get it into the small ring with time to spare, and someone attacks at the front. A brief minute of chaos ensues as guys are going backwards, guys are going forwards, and a lot of going sideways for good measure! Suddenly, there are gaps everywhere, and I am behind a big one at the top of the hill. Well, crap, how did this happen? I grab some gears and get moving as quickly as I can, ignoring the protests from my stomach. Apparently I'm not the only one who's been caught out, as I can see a teammate's jersey up the next little riser. I tap him on the back, swing past, and gun it for the back of what little is left of the "pack," about twenty riders, with three more guys off the front of that. I'm on the point of my saddle, just drilling it, and after what seems like forever my teammate has recovered enough to take a pull. A little of this, a little of that, and we're back on. Whew.
I would've been embarassed to get dropped like that. The next part of the race is tricky -- a rolling fast downhill section, a sweeping turn, and a little bridge with chunky pavement, leading to the feed zone climb. We're going over 50k an hour over the bridge, and I don't bother to use my small ring on the climb, which turns out to be a mistake. I make a mental note to remember to downshift for the feed hill, but it won't get in my head for two more laps. The pack swells a bit as a few more riders get back onto terms, and as we get into the start-finish area I am at the back of forty or fifty riders. I'm thinking about making the long slog up the mostly single-file line to the front, but then I get a free pass: a rider from the Axley / Seigler team swings out of line, armed with both determination and the deepest set of shiny carbon rims I have ever seen. I mean, these make Zipp 404's look shallow. I have no idea what they are, but they make a nifty growling noise as he powers his way up to the front. I hop off just behind my defending-champion team leader, maybe eight riders back. Perfect.
The next lap is a blur, although the three riders off the front stay away, extending their lead to about a minute and a half. At least I've got a strong teammate there -- when I read the names in the official's white board, I'm pretty sure it'll stay away. All three riders are super-fast riders with the endurance to go the distance. Nonetheless, I'm happy that I've gotten to the front with 3 laps to go, when the group gets temporarily neutralized to go around two ambulances and a fire truck attending to a couple of downed riders, one of who (or is it whom? I can't manage that little detail.) is in a neck brace, a stretcher, and is pretty bloody. I later find out he had a compound fracture. That means bones sticking out of skin, which can't be good. Yikes. Anther reminder to stay at the front, where the crashes aren't. The other thing I remember is that I run out of water, and haven't brough a feed-helper with me like some have. I'm really happy when Brian, the teammate I helped catch onto the field earlier, gives me half a can of Coke that he picked up. That was a really, really good Coke. Thanks B.
Second to last time up the wall, I'm hurting pretty badly, I'll admit. I've used far too much energy attacking from the back and other silly moves, and when someone shouts "Symmeeeeetrics!" as the named riders drill it at the front, I groan as I get gapped. Upshift, upshift, and I punch every turbo button I've got left. I'm on with a selection of about a dozen riders, now. Hey, this is pretty cool. It doesn't stay at a dozen, of course, but I feel pretty good that I've come this far, even if I haven't really -done- anything relevant in the race yet.
That happens next, when I get up to third wheel and watch another move go off, just as the last lap is beginning. Someone else shouts "go," and I jump, sitting on the point of my saddle as I turn myself inside out to grab onto the breakaway that's establishing. One more guy follows me, and there are six of us up there working. I'm really not sure what the etiquette is when you've got a guy off the front, but pretty far off the front. I end up taking my pulls, but not really working hard to drive the pace; I just kind of roll through. Staying with this breakaway up the wall the final time is one of the hardest single things in cycling that I've done. Though people tell me I'd like the course -- it has a hill, I like hills, right? -- a super-steep 400 meters is not exactly my cup of caffeinated beverage. I handle the longer stuff a lot better... but I hang on. I'm happy about that, but spent. When we get to the feed hill for the final climb, I pull a humpy dumpy and fall all to pieces, but, so does half of the break, and it gets re-absorbed into the hard-charging selection from the peloton.
The counter-attack comes from 2 of the known strong-men in the race, my teammate Kenny (CYCA!) and Darth Tubbs, plus another fellow in white and red that I don't recognize. It sticks. I hang in with the twenty-or-so frontrunners to finish, but don't really sprint it out for eighth, or whatever it ends up being.
At the end of the day (that one's for you, dad), my first cat 2 race didn't suck, though I wasn't amazingly strong, either. I made some mistakes, and paid for them, but it didn't knock me out entirely. My teammate won the race, keeping the white-and-green WA champ's jersey with First Rate Mortgage for another year, and I proved that I at least belong in the 1/2 peloton, even if I'm not going to be destroying the field week in, week out.
Not just yet.
(( for what it's worth, I don't think Lang Reynolds did last year, either...))