This weekend was the first big weekend of racing here in Tennessee. Saturday Was the Hell of the South road race in Lewisburg, and Sunday was the Cedar Hill crit up in Madison. These races are great races by themselves, but having them together and early in spring makes them even more of an event for everyone that has been training hard all winter and feeling the itch to race. All week people have been coming into the shop to talk about the course, who's racing, who's coming from out of town, and what the conditions might be like.
I had to be in the shop Saturday and so couldn't race. It's no fun knowing that all of your friends are out racing, and that you could maybe help out a bit if you were there, but I loved checking my phone all day and getting reports about what happened. Several guys on the 4/5 team were doing their first road race(they picked a hard one to start on), so hearing their stories was a blast and brought back a lot of memories. The masters racewas big(80 or so)and stacked-lots of fast guys showed up to race, including a big group from Texas Roadhouse, which has been a regional masters racing powerhouse for as long as I can remember. My teammate Jason Tatum did well, making the final selection and coming in 5th after locking up with cramps in the final sprint.
The crit on Sunday would be the same story-bigger and stronger fields than we typically see in our local racing scene. I was planning on doing the masters race and then lining up for the 1/2/3 race later in the day to get some extra race laps in(assuming I could hang on). I hoped that having legs that were a bit fresher would help out, since on paper we were outgunned. Roadhouse had six strong guys and always race well together. Our team had five, but two were coming back from injury and would likely be just trying to finish. That left Tatum, Alistair and me. Luckily, the three of us usually race well together.
I made a dumb mistake and got the start time wrong, so I rolled up to the park with almost no time to get numbers, get pinned and warm up before the masters race. I was pretty unhappy with myself-and with the conditions, which were pretty awful-48 degrees and rain, which makes for a miserable, dangerous day. Luckily, I saw Alistair talking to Tatum before the race. Usually, it's Alistair's job to hold Tatum back early in he race, saving a bit of energy for when it matters. I was glad, since I'd need the first few laps to get going after only having a five minute warm-up. I lined up at the back, at least happy that I'd be able to ride around in the bunch while my legs warmed up.
The whistle blew and we rolled out, and as we approached the first corner I was far enough back that I could see the front of the group as it exited the other side. What I saw was Alistair, in the drops, out of the saddle, attacking.
Oh. Maybe that pre-race chat hadn't been what I thought it was. There wasn't much I could do about it, so I rolled up to the front to be ready for whatever happened next. Alistair got reeled in pretty quickly, and Tatum immediately attacked. I hoped he'd at least draw out a few guys and stay away for a while, since it would be my turn to go next, and my legs were basically still in the car. Tatum stayed away for a lap or so, but he's on a pretty short leash these days after a great season last year. After he got pulled back I thought, "well, maybe I can just hang out here for a minute and act like I don't know what's going on. It's still early, after all...". But there was a brief lull-the perfect time to go-so I went.
I went a bit too hard. I've written before about closed energy equations, and attacking in a bike race is a great example of one. The more energy you expend getting away, the less energy you have at your disposal to use to stay away. So, after I got clear of the group, I was having some trouble. I remember thinking, "This is dumb. I could be at home on the couch right now". But I figured I'd stay out there a bit, hopefully make Roadhouse chase, get caught, and maybe do better next time around.
After about a minute, I looked back and saw that that wasn't happening. The group had sat up, and there was one rider trying to get across to me. I figured I'd at least make a go of it, so I put my head down and tried to find some rhythm. After about a lap, I saw that the other rider was getting closer, so I eased up a bit to let him get on. That situation is interesting-on one hand, it's a bit demoralizing; I always think, "I'm up here murdering myself, and this guy is gaining ground. What am I doing wrong? What did he eat for breakfast?". On the other hand, it's always nice to have help. In this case, I was very much focused on being glad for the help.
Once we got together, I started to feel much better and we rolled for a couple of laps. I looked back and saw two riders coming across-Neil Fronheiser from Treehouse and Curtis Tolson from Roadhouse. Good news-those two both had strong teammates in the bunch, and now none of them would be chasing. Once Neil and Curtis got up to use, we got organized pretty quickly and our gap grew. Eventually, I looked back and couldn't see the bunch. I was feeling good at this point, and I thought we might have a shot at making this move stick. I started to think about what I needed to do to beat Curtis and Neil, both of whom are much better sprinters than me.
The next lap, I was shocked to see Tatum come flying by with Brad Spears on his wheel. Brad had taken a monster turn, dragging the field up to us at what must have been close to 30 mph. The minute they made contact with our little group, Tatum attacked. It was almost the perfect move-Brad 's pull had worn everyone out-including Brad, so no one else was in a position to go with Tatum.
Almost, since we were in a spot in the race where we were close to the end, but not close enough where one guy was likely to be able to hold off the whole group. Tatum is our best(only) sprinter, and if he got caught close to the end, he'd be worn out and we'd be out of options. But his attack earned him a big gap-17 seconds almost immediately. We didn't have any choice but to try to shut down the group and hope for the best.
As we went through the start/finish a few laps later, I was shocked again-the officials were holding up the "two to go" sign. Two laps to go. I had assumed we had at least five to go; Tatum might have a shot.
Unfortunately, Roadhouse also saw that the race was going to be shorter than expected, and they got organized. They put five guys on the front, trying to pull it back for their sprinter, Richard Keller. Keller is super fast, especially on this course, so if it came back together, he'd be a lock for the win. Five chasing one. Not great odds.
They were taking time out of Tatum in chunks-the gap fell below ten seconds. I sat behind their train; there was nothing I could do but wait. They'd either bring him back or they wouldn't. If they did, we'd be screwed.
I had forgotten about Brad Spears. He attacked violently enough to get off the front and stay in the gap. I still didn't know if Tatum would have enough room so I just stayed tucked in. I was worried that the ramp-up for the sprint would be fast enough to bring Tatum and Brad back...but as we rounded the bend to enter the finishing straight, I could see that Tatum had done it-he'd held them off. It was a titanic effort, and it paid off in the best possible way-he won by himself, with no one else in the photo.
I absolutely botched the bunch sprint, but I absolutely didn't care. I couldn't wait to congratulate my friend.