Last spring our Masters racing team went down to Lewsiburg, TN to race the Hell of the South road race-the first big road race on the Tennessee calendar. Our friend Marshall Bassett puts it on, and he does a fantastic job-he always picks an amazing course and makes a quality event. This year's course was, as it usually is, very fun but extremely challenging-a 22 mile loop with a fast tailwind section, a middle section with a series of short hard climbs(and lone longer one on a dirt road), and exposed road with rolling terrain and a headwind into the finish. Our race was three laps for a total of 66 miles.
We were a bit uncertain about how to approach the race, since our field was small and our team had the largest team in it. My inclination was to race aggressively and put everyone else on the back foot. Alistair, who has been racing at a high level since he was a kid and who has forgotten more about bike racing than most of us will ever know, counseled caution. He knew the course was hard and was worried that we'd have to pay later for any early, unnecessary expenditure of energy. We talked it over for a bit and decided to just see how the race played out and react accordingly.
My friend Torsten once told me that, if there are 50 guys in a bike race, there are 50 stories at the end of it, and they are all different. He was right, and I also think that, even from one perspective, there are several stories in one race.
Lap One: Stupidity.
We rolled out, and everyone seemed pretty aware that we were in for a rough day. There were a few soft attacks, but no one really put his back into it so early. After a few miles, there was a quick descent with a hard right-hand turn at the bottom that led into the tailwind section. I knew that we'd get up to speed quickly after the turn and I wanted to be positioned for it, so when someone accelerated on the left side before the turn, I followed him. We rolled through the corner fast and clean, and when I looked back there was a gap to the rider behind me. So I pulled through hard, hoping to grow the gap. After twenty seconds or so, I flicked my elbow. Nothing. I turned around. Nothing. Nobody there.
Now...I didn't have any illusions about riding away for 60 miles, but as I've said before, when you get a gap you have to respect it. So I turned back around and rode. Not full gas, just steady. And as we went through the rest of the tailwind section, the gap grew. I got to the climbs and over them by myself, and I'll admit that for a few moments I thought that maybe they might make a mistake and give me too long of a leash. But as we got to the end of the lap, the group got organized and pulled me back. I didn't feel too spent from the effort, so I just hopped back on the back of the bunch and tried to eat and drink.
Lap Two: The Real Race.
As we started the second lap, it seemed like everybody was ready to start racing. The attacks were more violent and there were more of them. The group split and came back together several times, but each time the gap took a little bit longer to close. As we got closer to the section of the course with the short climbs, it seemed like the real selection was about to be made. I still felt good, so I stayed close to the front, but when John Carr attacked and got away clean I missed his wheel. He was up the road by himself for a few miles, and the group sat up a bit. I thought that John might be playing the role on lap two that I played on lap one, but a rider in a kit that I didn't recognize jumped at the bottom of the first small hill and I tagged on to his wheel. He dragged me across to John very very fast, and when we got there, I noticed two things: 1. the group was nowhere in sight behind us, and 2. this out of town guy was flying. He almost dropped John and I both on the first climb, and then he did drop John on the second one. Once we got over the climbs and it smoothed out I recovered a bit, but I knew I was in trouble.
Lap Three: Crisis Management.
22 miles to go, and I was all kinds of hurting. I was paying the price for that first lap effort. The only thing I had going for me was that, for the time being at least, Out Of Town Guy needed me. He didn't want to ride 22 miles by himself(who would? That would be stupid)-he wanted the small amount of help that I could give him, and he knew that while I was with him, my teammates wouldn't be chasing. And I milked it as much as I could-I told him my teammates were back there disrupting the chase, and that we didn't know how far ahead we were so we needed to stay together. So he took it easy on me and was waiting for me on the climbs, but I was hanging by a thread. Every time he pulled through, I came a few pedal strokes from being dropped. My hope was that once we got over the climbs I could recover enough to get lucky in the sprint for the win.
As we started up the last climb, Out Of Town Guy distanced me a bit. I was just riding my own pace...and then the official on the motorcycle came up next to me. He rode beside me for few seconds and then said, "You have three minutes on the group".
Bad news. With a three minute gap, Out OF Town didn't need me any more. He could ride the last 10 miles without any worry of getting caught. When he heard that news, there would be no more waiting.
The moto started to accelerate to give the gap information to Out Of Town. I screamed, "NO-WAIT!! I'LL TELL HIM-DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT!!!". The official game a me a look that said, "Nice try" and kept going.
Two minutes later, I was by myself. Out Of Town Guy accelerated and won by himself. I limped in for second, worried the whole time that I'd be caught in the last few hundred meters.
Alistair is a hell of a nice guy. He didn't even say "I told you so".