Our newly formed break was driving down the eastbound leg of the course. We were working well together to establish our advantage. Our first task was to stay clear of the riders feeling left out in the peloton. Potentially, if the peloton was organized enough, it could be harder for us to build an advantage riding dowhnill into a headwind. Here is a refresher of the course profile of the east/west lap we would ride three times in the breakaway group:
In a very strong crosswind, perhaps only 5-6 riders could fit across the narrow lane at deer trail, but this day the wind was moderate. With plenty of riders able to fit into a rotating paceline, the peloton could organize a strong chase using double the riders in our breakaway group. In headwind conditions, especially downhill, the sheltered riders can coast along, while the riders at the front push hard for a few seconds to keep the speed up. A small group can be at a disadvantage because they lose their momentum pushing into the wind more quickly. Luckily our group of eight was big and strong enough to build just over a minute by the second turnaround (#2 above).
The turnarounds in this race also can play into the psychology of the race. The moto gave us our first time check after the second turnaround as a minute and a half, but the peloton seemed very close, and very real as we passed by them in the oncoming lane.
We had a very strong group comprised of some of the strongest riders in the race. I’ve now been racing with these guys long enough that I’m starting to learn their strengths, and attacking styles, which informed my strategy. Kevin Selker (Tokyo Joe’s -Whole Foods/Primal) and Nick Traggis (Horizon Organic/Panache) are both sprinters. To make matters worse, Nick was the only rider with a teammate in the break: Brad Bingham, who was been tearing up the weekday training crits. My semi-nemesis from last season Rory Kelly (GS Boulder/The Trek Store), more of an all-rounder like myself, was present. As was Yannick Eckmann (California Giant Cycling), who is a very young and very exceptional cyclocross racer, but I was unsure what to expect of him on the road.
We also had two riders who were ‘dead weight’. The course features constant rolling hills, a few of which require the small chainring. This puts pressure on everyone, especically the weaker riders. On the return leg, someone suggested putting some extra pressure on them and we increased the pace.
I started to think about how the race was going to play out. I knew we were gone for good. The entire race now consisted of eight riders (with two lagging). What would I do if this was the entire race? I attacked. Not only did they let me go, someone shouted “Seriously!?” as I took off. Nobody responded. I had broken an unwritten rule and attacked far too early. There are too phases in the breakaway: building the advantage, and later infighting for the win. Attacking too early diminishes the chances of success of everyone in the break, although I was pretty sure our chances were 100%.
I quickly built a gap and settled down after the turn around. For one, nobody had responded like I expected. And for another, I was now riding alone, downhill into a headwind. I was watching carefully over my shoulder to see how the group would respond. I hoped to seem them attacking each other and/or riding themselves into the gutter. Instead I saw five guys that had been working together well for a half hour continuing to do so.
I sat up. I still wonder what may have happened if I had stuck with it. We had about 25 miles left to race; about an hour. It would have been an attack of or proportions, but it was obvious they all though “let him go”. In hindsight, I should have attacked at the beginning of thenext tailwind section. That would be a long way from the finish (~20 miles), but I could have used the long distance to suit my abilities, and the initial uphill/cross-tailwind to reduce the advantage of the group. I would have only had one downhill/cross-headwind section to ride alone…
I was re-absorbed and we continued rolling turns, after a few more snarky comments from the guys (“You have to piss or something?”, suggesting I need to rush ahead for a moment). We continued to roll turns, but were now riding only a moderate pace, with the pack far out of sight. Our next time check at the fourth turn-around was two and half minutes, still increasing despite not really trying.
We continued to smoothly roll turns. I made sure to eat and drink as much as possible. This was to be a pretty short race, but I wanted to top up and have time to digest before the finish. I also made sure to ride behind a large rider for a touch more draft. Nick and Brad, the teammates, were riding together in the rotation. As the finish was approaching, we still had one of the tired riders in the group. I really didn’t want to find myself behind him when the first attack went, as he likely would leave me with more ground to cover to regain contact with the group.
I knew I was likely the best time trialist in the group, so I wanted to go as early as possible. I knew I was not the best sprinter in the group, so I wasn’t interested in a sprint. This is where some of my goals have changed since last year. Last year I was happy to race for the ‘highest place’ possible, partly for upgrade points. This year I want to put more on the line. I was racing to WIN.
I didn’t want to attack with too much downhill/headwind remaining, as the group would have a large advantage chasing. This left me with the last 8k to the finish, but was too obvious, so I went as we climbed one of the rollers before the turn around. I was the first to attack, dropping ever so slightly off the back as my turn came around, and then launching up the right (sheltered) side at the bottom of the roller, so I had the most speed and the longest time with a neutralized wind scenario.
I also rode right in the gutter to make sure nobody would get any help from my draft. The wind wasn’t super-strong, and unfortunately it felt like there was still as smidgen of draft even when everyone was guttered. The hill also wasn’t quite long enough and they started to come back more quickly as I headed back downhill. Brad put the race back together, and then he and Nick set about utilizing a team tactic: Brad rode far enough out of the gutter that only Nick could fit in is draft, leaving the three others without respite. As we reached the turn around Brad was dropped leaving five of us with four miles to go and a four minute gap to the peloton.
My memory is a tad fuzzy, but I don’t believe Yannick or Kevin ever attacked, as they were waiting for the sprint. I went once more but couldn’t gain much traction. Rory attacked up the steepest section of the last roller, which set me up perfectly to counter. My legs burned but I knew it was now or never so I went again. It wasn’t enough. The elastic just wouldn’t snap. I was on the front after my counter as we passed 1k to go. The road was now featureless, dead flat and dead straight to the finish.
I actually think a crosswind sprint is a bit unheard of in big pro races. The finish is generally in a town with buildings, and at least finishing barriers. We had an exposed road with the wind blowing towards the centerline, but with the moto and finishline officials watching intently, I hoped they would be very strict with the rules. Again, hindsight but I wish I had gone earlier, but I waited to go until about 600m, from the front.
I jumped and dove into the centerline. I rode as hard as I could and focused on riding as close as I could to the paint. I glanced between my legs and could see Kevin (I think), but he wasn’t directly on my wheel. If I could keep some sort of gap, he wouldn’t be getting the benefit of the draft with the crosswind, and perhaps I could burn the sprinters out with a long run to the finish. I held on until about 100 meters to go when the sprint opened up behind me and everyone came around.
I finished 5th. I had very good legs for the race and did the smartest thing I could think of at the time to use my strengths. I could have been a touch smarter, but I think in the end the wind conditions suited the sprinters in our group. Either way, it is my best result this season and I’m happy to see things progressing well.