Stage Three – All Road Races Should be This Road Race
So this is the classic New England road race, and apparently served as it’s own event before being integrated into the Green Mountain Stage Race. Two big gaps (Middlebury and Appalachian), a hotly contested points sprint, Roubaix-esq dirt sections, plus a few Amstel Gold-style short/steeps in between for good measure. This year’s event also featured some classic New England weather – low 50’s, decent wind and awful, awful rain. It was cold and fell in big drops that felt like freshly melted ice. Normally I’m too hardy and beefy to care about such things, but as I haven’t ridden in the cold rain since, like, college, I am a bit nervous about it.
My primary concern, however, is fixing my bike, which refuses to shift into higher gears in the back. I was *this* close to getting a sweet Colnago Dream with the new SRAM Force gruppo on it, but some jerk mechanic got it running again. Apparently the pawls were worn in the shifter and there’s “nothing you can do about it” except dial eveything superfine and take deep breaths and try again lightly if it won’t shift. He began to litanize about all the other things about to break on my bike, but I cut him off with “yeah, I just need a new bike”, a statement to which he offered no objection. I also swiped a Mavic 12-26 wheel, seeing as I had left my wheels with the 27 at Rossman’s house.
Now out in the rain, I cave to being a wuss and wear leg warmers and a long-sleeve jacket over my jersey. Neither is waterproof and I am very cold and wet coming down the hill for the “neutral 3 mile downhill”. Already people are skidding and swerving, so I drift to the back, hoping that in the event of _another_ neutral crash, I’ll land on bodies instead of pavement. I’m told like 20 dudes bailed out of our race as soon as it went active, but it sure wasn’t from pace. A few surges went, but even from my cheap seats, it was easy to move up. ECV, NCC and NEBC put riders on the front and rode something resembling tempo, but when it came time to remove my jacket, I was able to keep pace riding alone, off to the right, sitting up, going uphill, all while attempting to maintain balance as I contorted furiously to extract myself from the wet, clingy garment. And of course, it was too big to fit into a jersey pocket, so I had to shove the wet mess down the front of my shirt.
At this point, the rain has eased off, but it’s still very cloudy, wet and cold. The course climbs subtly for the first 20 miles, and it was plenty to get warm for the 5 mile descent, which culminates in a hot spot sprint. I’ve got no shot at the points jersey, but I’ve got no shot at anything else, either, so why not have some fun? It was a nifty run in, with some late attacks and lots of teamwork. I executed my first real “move” of the race, shooting to the across the road behind a row of riders, darting through the almost-too-small gap between a guardrail and a rider on the inside of a sweeping right, then snagging the back wheel of the weaving lead out train. NEBC drove the train again, but pulled off way early, resulting in a 500 meter seated sprint (which – undeservedly – their guy still won). Despite my dancing, I spent too much time in the wind and started with poor position. I took 4th, but the points are only 3 deep, so lord knows how many people who could have beat me for it just sat up.
Things continued easily enough to the base of Midd gap, which is like 3 miles from any real climbing. I seem to always forget this, though, so I pulled out my jacket in anticipation of tossing it off at the feed zone. If you’re ever looking for a nice way to lose a ton of positions before the base of a serious uphill, I’d recommend riding while trying clutch a massive wet lump of microfiber. Finally the zone comes up and I toss it away. Climbing Midd feels fine, aside from the fact that I am riding 200 meters behind the pack (due to losing postion with the coat/non-climbers just bagging it immediately), picking off stragglers as they fall. Other than last year’s heroics, I’ve always been able to get over Midd fairly easy, but it was infuriating to have that gap.
I hit the top with two other dudes about 30 seconds-one minute back of the leaders and let them lead the descent, since I haven’t gone down hill like I meant it since the last time I went down this hill. On the first sweeping corner I put it over as hard as the guy in front of me, and the rear wheel (neutral, remember) starts dancing like the rim is wildly out of true. I’m told this “kind of happens” with dual-compound tires a lot, and it certainly wasn’t a confidence booster. I’m now on the clamps way too much, which is no way to make up the gap to the guy I’m following. Another dude kamikazes past me on a corner, which is when I realize that on this side of the mountain, it’s 60 degrees, sunny, and much drier, and I should be going way faster. Still, I can’t kick the caliper habit, and end up hemorrhaging time all the way down.
Finally at the base, it’s an 8 man chase group and were mostly motivated and strong. I’m the engine, no doubt about it, but not a standout, and there’s only one weak link, but he’s not all that much slower. I’ve got leg a-plenty for the flats, but any uphill turns my thighs to goo. We work our way through a good sized tail of cars, and jubilantly regain the field – immediately before an Amstel hill. I had instinctively continued up through the pack upon the catch, but still couldn’t put anything together to move my fat ass away from the center of the Earth. Some meandering flats and downhills later, I recapture the field again, but I know Amstel #2 is coming up, and probably should have pulled in the flag right there. Still, I got some pride and I was entertaining the SRAM support guys in my moto-draft yo-yoing, and I managed to keep in sight of the pack for most of the second Amstel.
From there, the course left-turns onto dirt, which is normally hard and bumpy, and, since it’s slightly downhill, a good spot for a solo (with balls) to catch back on. This year, the rain left it silky smooth, feeling something like a 90psi tire. I put in two more minutes of controlled churn, but there’s no getting back. I sit up and pound goos until a real live autobus catches me. I’ve never ridden in the bus before (don’t usually get dropped in stage races, and people tend to just quit if they fall off in a one-day), and to tell you the truth, it’s really fun. Everyone’s either fried or saving it, and the latter generally understand their unspoken duty is to set the pace. It’s about 30 guys once we clear Amstel #3 and head out to the bipartate climb of App gap.
We hit the first part of the gap (Baby Gap) just as the Masters 30+ field is catching us. It’s got one guy like five minutes up, and then a pack of say, 15 behind. Must have sucked to ride that race. As we grind away, I keep expecting to get dropped, but everyone just keeps churning along, some light conversation here and there, but not too chatty. The 39-26 is feels like a much better riding gear than 39-27, which has too much dead space between strokes and can really only be used as a bail out. I know it sounds ridiculous for 1.4 gear inches to make a difference, but when your legs are trashed, it does. We clear Baby, and I look back to see our group shaved to about 12 or so. No complaining, no attacking, no surging, just a bunch of dudes who’ve become temporary teammates. Good times. Also, we passed like a billion public urinators who’d been dropped our and other fields.
I never really understood how Euro pros stay inside the time cuts after getting dropped on the first climb of a 200km day, but I have somewhat of an inkling now. It’s way easier, in terms of both physical and mental effort, to slog along with a handful of other guys. As we rolled back into the rain and wind in the last 4k of App gap, we clustered up tight and ignored idiot American spectators who told us to “give it everything” because we were “almost there”. As we approached that last 25% grade up to the line, some French Canadian was like “man, it’s it gonna be windy” in just atrocious English, so I gave him a “Oui, tres vent mal“, which got some laughs from the other Snow Frogs in the group.
The UVM/NCC guy who’d set tempo the entire time pulled ahead slightly over the last 100m, but no one cared. We rolled in, said “good riding” and then charged back to sugarbush to get warm. It was pretty fun, though I was internally upset at being dropped on the descent. Some Good Samaritan even picked up my jacket and brought it back to the Sugarbush lodge. On the road ahead of me, Rudy had taken 8th or so, with Pech not far behind. In the pro race, pretty much everyone I know finshed, and Will Duggan (4th) and Matt Rossman (like, 18th, maybe?) even had good races. I just can’t believe people were soft enough to drop out in the first kilometer.
NEXT: The shortest crit ever