Joe Martin Stage Race 2015

(Written for the team’s website, hence the lack of curse words)

It was still dark but birds were chirping loudly just outside the open window, which let in a cool breeze scented with fresh rain. I heard The Sheriff (Michael Burleigh) stir in the bed next to mine. He’d been restless for the past two or three hours, yet his previous snoring was a sign of contented sleep that I’d jealously coveted the past seven hours while staring up at the ceiling. I hadn’t slept one single minute that night and it was now 5:08 AM. Almost time to get up and pack the van for the drive home to Colorado from Fayetteville, Arkansas.

I heard a groaning sigh as Michael got up and started stripping the sheets from his bed for the laundry. Screw it, another 20 minutes of lying there wasn’t going to make me feel any better, so I got up too.

“I didn’t sleep at all,” I said.

“I slept like shit too. The meat sweats. I had them baaad,” groaned Michael.

“Yeah, same here,” I replied. The hot room’s scent agreed.

We’d feasted on a half dozen different kinds of smoked, roasted, and grilled pork the night before during a large barbeque that our hosts had thrown for us. I’d say I ate a conservative six pounds of meat that night.

“You know what the really messed up thing is?” I asked. “I’m still hungry.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Michael agreed.

I ate pulled pork that morning and a long side of ribs that afternoon, wondering what was wrong with me. The mental agony of forcing down that meat and the havoc it was wreaking on my intestines was not lost on me. I guess eating mass amounts of pork products is a lot like bike racing. You enjoy the deliciousness of the moment, try to forget about the pain, and focus on the next few pedal strokes (or mouthfuls) to victory, all the while attempting to regret nothing and block out the knowledge that something bad could and probably will happen around the next bend. I take my pig-eating very seriously.

Last week we competed in the second NRC event of the season, the Joe Martin Stage Race. I’d say it’s one of my top four favorite NRC stage races, with its rolling hills, long stages, and difficult final day crit. I for one could do without the uphill time trial on day one though.

Our top guy for Thursday’s TT was guest rider Emerson Oronte, who placed a respectable 6th, just 8 seconds back from the winner, Jamis’ Gregory Brenes. Chris Winn put in a good time as well to finish 21st, while Josh Yeaton came in a respectable 34th out of the 165 starters. The three of us draft horses Jake Deuring, George Simpson, and myself), came in a few pages down on the old results sheet.

That brings us to the Sheriff, who we’d all secretly thought could take the win. His strategy was a bold one, vying for either first or last; no middle ground (for him, 50th might as well have been last). He set out guns a blazing but ran out of bullets half way up and went out in a flame of glory. Alas, he’d live on to fight another day. I could continue with these war-themed metaphors but I don’t have that much time to kill.

The second stage was a 108-mile jaunt through the Ozarks, which are considered “mountains” by east coasters and mid-westerners. With a GC rider to protect (Emerson), a sprinter to shelter (Josh), and three or four hard men to battle for the breakaway, I set out to fetch bottles and help position the guys as best as I could.

The first 30 or 40 kilometers were fast, with nothing able to last out in the wind for long. So far, my job had mainly been left unaccomplished. I’d done zero positioning for the team and I had only attacked twice. Instead of playing a part in the race, I was wallowing in self-pity near the back of the peloton. I’d received some difficult news from home a few hours before the start, and my futile attempt to put it behind me while we raced had come to an end. The roads turned slick with rain and my mood continued souring right along with the weather. When you’re suffering emotionally, it’s incredibly hard to muster up the mental focus needed to slog the old legs into action.

I drifted off the back on a short climb, not from exertion, but from pure uncaring. I was done. Done trying to deal with everything. For those readers who aren’t aware, my wife was struck by a car while riding her bike last fall and was in a comma for five days. The aftermath of that crash still follows her and I with every step we take, and dealing with it during training and racing is virtually impossible for me. That brings us back to that hill I was drifting backwards on in the rain. At that moment, I was done with caring and done with wanting to even try. I envisioned quitting the sport right then and there. My eyes welled with tears at that thought, because bike racing is my life and without it I’d just be another regular fool working a 9-5, pissing my years away behind a computer screen like I’m doing right now. Just ticking off the days of my pointless, boring existence.

We got to the top of the hill. I saw a couple other riders who were actually suffering, physically. Mouths agape, legs pushing agonizingly slow cadences, bodies rocking. Jesus, these guys suck, I thought. Can’t go off the back with them. That would be embarrassing. So I sprinted around them and caught back onto the pack, thinking that I’d drop out a few moments later.

Since I was already at the back, soon I found myself in the caravan taking a feed from Nick and Faith. Can’t drop out now, these bottles need to be delivered. I handed out the bottles, giving the last one to Emerson, who was near the front of the peloton. Since I’m already here, might as well attack. I followed one guy off the front, and we quickly caught two more up the road. I pulled through, weakly, and another rider came up from behind. Soon the five of us were rotating through and for a fleeting moment I thought this could be it. The move. Seven minutes ago I was about to drop out and ride back to the start by myself. Now I was off the front. Hope shimmered, temporarily. We were caught. It didn’t matter. I’d lifted myself out of the funk I was in and from there on out I was present in the race.

The real move got away a few kilometers later. Our boys lined up near the front behind Jamis and Orgullo Antioqueno to keep Emerson safe. Ha. There’s nowhere safe in a bike race. During a slight shuffling from another squad moving in on us from the left as we approached a downhill curve, Jake touched my rear wheel and went down hard, breaking his collarbone and taking out 30 guys with him. One moment was peace, the next was chaos. The worst part about at teammate crashing like that is that there’s nothing you can do to help. What other arena in life do you watch a friend smash to the pavement at 30mph, hear utter carnage and guttural curses, get word that bones have been broken, yet continue along without so much as a rearward glance? I’d gone to the back of the pack to wait for him in case he got back on, just in case. It didn’t account for much.

An hour later the final climb began. I wasn’t feeling great, but had enough oxygen in my brain to look up and take in the view and store away the moment in time as we crested the climb. We rose up into a thick cloud of fog. The bright colors of the peloton vanished 50 feet ahead of me in the suspended water droplets. As we began the descent, small rocks and grit flew into my eyes, which were uncovered by glasses since they were now too dirty and dark to see through. Brakes weren’t working at their finest, due to the slick roads and carbon rims. The bold blazed past and the meek continued grabbing brakes. I was among the later.

The 20-mile run-in to the finish was long, wide-open, packed with cars that were stopped on the left side of the road, never under 30 miles an hour, and terrifying. Trains moved up on the left, the right, and straight down the center. Riders began taking more and more risks to position for the final series of 90-degree corners in the last 1.5 kilometers. You have to be in the top 15 leading into that section if you plan on contesting the finish or getting the same time as the lead group. Everyone knows this.

I couldn’t seem to move up and regain contact with my teammates no matter where and when I tried. The pace only got faster as the finish line approached and my worthless meat pistons only grew more leaden. I entered that crucial left hander and was forced to jam on the brakes from a pile up in the middle of the road. I hoped up on the sidewalk to bypass it, but soon found myself stopped once again after seeing Michael go summersaulting over the pavement with his bike flipping over his head like a leashed surfboard flung high into the air after a big wipe out.

All at once, all the adrenaline, pain, hope, and excitement of the previous four hours vanished into the air. The race (our race) was over. I caught my breath. Still alive. George rolled up from behind and we helped Michael mount his battered steed for the final 500 meters. We rolled across the finish line and Michael went straight to the medical tent to get his wounds scrubbed. We regrouped with the rest of the team, bid farewell to Jake, who had been riding in the back of the race ambulance with a shattered clavicle for the past 2.5 hours without any pain meds or food, and began the short ride home.

Our somber mood lasted for an hour back at our host house…until Faith came home and started cooking. Food cures all, almost. Late that night we found out that Emerson had been docked 17 seconds for being held up in the crash, despite the 3K rule and despite his position in the top 20 when the crash happened. Our GC contention was essentially gone in the blink of a disgruntled official’s eye.

Saturday’s race was a complete turnaround, for me at least. The sun was shining, I’d resolved the personal issues from the following day, and my spirits were soaring. The course consisted of a lollypop out and back section with four 23-mile loops of a hilly circuit. We were in for another long one again, at 110 miles. Emerson was riding in a blind rage for the first half lap, trying to initiate a break since his GC prospects looked grim. The rest of the guys had good legs as well and Chris was following dangerous moves at the front. The break got away on the descent, of all places, so I was once again very content to do what I could in order to keep the rest of the team near the front and as fresh as possible.

That, of course, included a lot of time spent back in the caravan with Nick and Faith, loading up on bottles. My time with them wasn’t limited to bottles though. I got a mechanical on lap two and had to do a furious chase back onto the group before lap three’s climb, then I crashed and broke my bars a lap later.

I was uninjured but fuming mad. A couple stupid, ignorant, son-of a bitch, dumb bastards didn’t heed the warnings of the rest of the peloton when they signaled the parked cars on the left. So when the pinch came, they rode into each other and caused a mini pile up. I had to get a neutral bike from Shimano and by the time I was rolling, the peloton was five minutes up the road. I did the last 35 miles solo, going hard enough to make the time cut by a safe margin.

Later, I heard that the finish was once again sketchy as usual with guys riding off the road into ditches and being carted off in the ambulance. Another big crash within sight of the finish line caused carnage in the 80-rider pack, but Chris, Josh, Emerson, and Michael all stayed safe and finished in the same time as the leaders.

The final day of JMSR is always my favorite. The 85-minute crit is somewhat technical and includes a hard climb that shatters the pack in the final laps. Our goal was to get off the front once and for all, since there wasn’t much to lose at that point. Instead, we managed to ride in mass between 20th and 50th wheel, missing out on the break and not getting organized enough to position Josh for the uphill sprint. To be fair, it’s a hard course to accomplish an organized train. I for one was just holding on for dear life during the last two laps, and should have made a bigger effort to move up with five or six to go when it was still manageable.

Chris, Josh, Emerson, and I all finished within a few lengths of each other, coming in between 20th and 30th, which isn’t ideal. It shows an obvious strength in depth when you have that many riders finish just outside of the guys sprinting for the win. But to not catapult one of those guys into the top 10? That’s a bad performance.

My big take away from the stage was that despite how your teammates might say they feel or how they look like they’re riding, if your job is to help them in the finish, you might as well burn yourself with four laps to go in order to make sure they’re set up for a fighting chance.

Despite not landing the GC or stage result we’d hoped for, we ended up 5th on team GC and were once again the highest-placed amateur squad in the race. Emerson’s 15th GC at the end of the race is nothing to shy away from, even though we all know it was a top 10 in reality.

That night I had too many beers (four), too many pounds of meat (who knows), and just enough laughs to cancel out any negatives of the week. Jake’s collarbone will heal, Josh, Chris, and George will all get another chance to sprint for that elusive NRC stage win later in the season, Michael will bounce out of the slight funk he’s in to re-earn his title as The Sheriff, and I’ll keep taking baby steps towards my old self. The steps of an ungainly, freakishly large 9-foot tall baby that is. Above all, I re-found a bit of forgotten passion for this crazy, amazing lifestyle. It’s not wise to take it for granted. Appreciate the moment. Your next could be in the back of an ambulance, off the back of the race in emotional turmoil, or hunched in agony over the toilet three days after an over-indulgence in BBQ ribs, hoping and praying for the smallest trace of a bowel movement.

Face of said attempted bowel movement:

jmsr

Photo courtesy of Bill Stephens

Redlands: Stages 2 and 2.5

Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail. And sometimes you’re an unsuspecting wood beetle that’s burrowed deep into a 2 x 4 and you get skewered by the nail and your guts, blood, juices, and brain get smashed and pushed through the grains of the wood as the nail drives down through your corpse. Nobody even notices the beetle. Except for the low quality of the wood.

Wednesday morning: the unnecessarily long drive up to Big Bear (organizers: please bring back the old TT course) was accompanied by three or four large cups of coffee. I had a 129th GC place to defend, and was hoping that a high blood-caffeine level would do the trick.

After a good warm up I was out of the start gate and heading up the hilliest section of the 13km course. Not looking at power, I relied on my keen instinctual “inner” power meter, which told me I was doing 987 watts for the first three minutes. Somehow, even at that pace, I did not make up more than about 10 seconds on my 30-second man. I started blowing up about five minutes in and the gap remained the same. At the turn around, I noticed that despite my supreme cornering prowess in the winding, technical section of the course, I was most likely going to be caught by my other 30-second man (the one behind me). Halloway went flying past me out of one of the hair pins and that’s when I realized my ambitious GC aspirations of a top 150 might have just gone out the window. I rallied hard during the false flat uphill section, and got as aero as possible for the final kilometer. I came in a victorious 131st. Only one minute slower than last year. The sterling performance bumped me up to 122nd overall! Everything’s coming up Millhouse.

My more fit teammates put in some actual results, with The Sheriff “Michael Burleigh” moving on up to 14th GC. We hung around for the podium presentation, hoping that he might get to pull on the best amateur jersey. But alas, 17-year old super freak Adrian Costa Rica donned it in The Sheriff’s stead.

Thursday: Oak Glen. Fuck me I’m slow. My legs were blown before we even started, as proved during our 40-minute ride out to Oak Glen from Redlands. Adelaide rode out with us to be in the feed zone, and at one point she was hurting on one of the climbs. I thought I might give her a push if she started to fall back. A few minutes later I realized I might need a push.

The race started out downhill, fast, and slightly scary. I hate starting out a race on a descent, in a huge pack, on a wide open road, with attacks flying, and nerves still unsettled. There’s almost no worse way to start. Scratch that, there’s a worse way.

A long false flat “climb” suddenly took the downhill’s place and I found myself drifting backwards through the peloton. I’d been up somewhat close to the front (top 70 is considered close for my standards right now) and rider after rider came around as I prayed for a few seconds of coasting to regain my breath and legs. The coasting never came, and about two kilometers before the KOM I finally came unhinged from the very back of the now 160-rider-field. About 30 other weaklings didn’t make the time cut that day.

I found myself desperately sprinting to get in the draft of the caravan, forcing others out from the best middle position into the wind and off the back. When you’re that desperate, no one else’s race matters. For a few miles I thought I had a chance to work my way back on to the group, but a few of the cars opened up gaps that I couldn’t close, and then rightfully sped off without me.

A group of seven came from behind. We caught another group of seven or eight, and the bakers dozen of us who’d obviously eaten too many baked goods that winter, struggled along in silence, each deep in thoughts of self-hatred.

By the end of lap two (of five) the officials pulled us. I rode on to the feed zone to distribute bottles with Adelaide and George’s dad Bob for the next three laps. After the final lap, Adelaide and I rode to the top of the Oak Glen climb, hoping to see the team. They’d already left, so we rode home.

I knew it would be a long shot to finish Redlands. I really didn’t think I’d make it through that first day. When I got back to our host house and began packing to take off, Faith (our team cook/soigneur/mom) said “Don’t be sad. I’m tired of sad bike racers.” I can attest to that. Cyclists are a sorry bunch a lot of the time, especially after a race they did poorly at. I replied with, “Cycling is my life and identity. And I currently suck at it. So it’s hard to not be sad.”

Then I stomped out of the room like a spoiled little child and said I hate you all and I’m running away from home!!!

Despite the self-pity, I had a good time that night out in downtown Redlands and a pleasant drive home with Adelaide the following day. We camped at Monument National park and the next week back at home was my first in a long time with some decent consistency.

Oh yeah, the team: Michael ended up 16th on GC and we were the best amateur team at Redlands, with Chris and Michael both making the front group on the last day despite Michael’s handlebars falling off on lap two.

We just arrived in Arkansas for the Joe Martin Stage Race, so my redemption is just around the bend. I’m here with a stacked team once again, and we’re shooting for nothing less than a GC podium or stage win. I’ll have my work cut out for me, shuffling the guys around to the front.  With a few more miles in my legs and a clear set of lungs, I’m hoping for a slightly different outcome than Redlands and a slightly more uplifting blog post to accompany it.

11121781_10152928088683668_3603745305995548590_nPhoto courtesy of Jared Wright

Redlands Stage 1: For me, just a training race…

Stage 1 of Redlands: The Highlands circuit race consists of 20 laps on a 2.8-mile course with one large bump and a winding descent through a neighborhood filled with screaming school children. The bump is fairly steep, and is considered a climb by some and even a mountain by those of us less fit and/or larger riders. I finished a respectable 129th.

Usually I come into the season overtrained or at least very fit from a long winter of hard training and as many early season races as I can cram in. 2015 was the opposite of that and this is quite possibly the first year I’ve not been even an ounce over-worked or fatigued coming into Redlands. As discussed in plenty of earlier blog posts, my offseason did not go well. On top of that, I’ve been sick for the past two and a half weeks. I’ve got excuses seeping out my pores! So about that 129th…eh, not too shabby. Before the race I wasn’t confident I’d even be able to make the time cut.

My job for the stage was to slip into a move or help position the better climbers on the team (Chris, Josh, and Michael). At one point I considered going off the front (on the descent) but quickly came to the realization that if I was in a breakaway, instead of getting to rest on the flatter and more downhill sections, I’d have to continue pedaling. Fat chance of that. I was sag climbing and just barely hanging on as it was. This was lap three I believe. Only 17 to go. I opted to (try) and help position our climbers. Even doing that wasn’t quite feasible for me; by the time I would make my way back up to them after the technical neighborhood section, the climb would start again and my anchor was thrown overboard.

At some point I gave Chris and Michael bottles (that I got from Adelaide in the feed zone) and that was probably my most valuable contribution to the team. I got shit out the back with two laps to go when Hincapie hit the front. I rode it in with a medium sized group that also contained my teammate George. Jake and Ian suffered DIY mechanicals. I mean Di2. Flawless shifting, that Di2.

Our three climbers made the front selection and placed 22nd, 32nd, and 33rd, all in the winner (Sebastian Haedo’s) time. While our goal of having a high stage placing for Josh and Chris didn’t pan out, we can’t be too upset with three solid GC prospects to choose from, not to mention 6th on team classification out of 25 teams. #GSWho???

Afterwards I hung out with Maybellene and Adelaide up on the Sunset loop course and soaked in some amazing California sun amongst the palms. She’s staying with a woman who wasn’t able to host a team this year and has the whole house to herself. Last Friday after work we started the drive out here to camp and spend a few days at the beach. It’s been great to get away. I’ll elaborate more on the vacation aspect of this trip in a non race report post in a few days.

For the next four stages, I’m hoping that I can be of some good use to the guys who are riding well, and that a hard stage race will whip up some fitness and good vibes to spur me back to my normal training routine for the remainder of the season. In most cases a training race is an unimportant local parking lot crit. But if you’re unfit enough, even the biggest stage race of the year can be considered just a training race, or so I’m telling myself. 129th out of 195 is humbling.

20683_534754223330702_2915124557935783254_nWhen whiskey isn’t feasible, the Sheriff drinks Skratch. (Photo: Jared Wright)

11115743_534513580021433_6442107224453186762_nGeorge and I on the attack. Not really. (Photo: Bob Simpson)

photo 3Maybellene attacking. Also not really. (Photo: Adelaide Perr)