June 25, 2009

Elkhorn Stage Race

Exit Cat 4, Enter Cat 3. I was racing with the big girls now. I got my upgrade after the Mt Hood Cycling Classic. Elkhorn would be my first race as a Cat 3. I still wasn't sure how to feel about it. Did I just get lucky or did I deserve to be riding with the 1/2/3s?

Bright and early Friday morning, Sarah, Cary and I, with a loaded car and bikes in tow, headed north east to Baker City. Our race started at 2pm.

We arrived at race headquarters, Baker City High School around noon.

Dark clouds looming and intermittent rain showers greeting us with open arms.

Stage 1: Oregon Trail Road Race

The peleton rolled out of the high school parking lot and through the town of Baker City, over 90 riders strong. All the women raced together, Pro 1/2s, 3 and 4s and there was an overload of nervous energy brewing as people moved around to find the right wheel and their “spot” within the group. I stayed to the outside of the group, hugging the yellow line and trying to keep a position in the front 1/3 of the group. The roads were wet. Grit quickly found its way in between my teeth and behind my sunglasses.

The first 25 miles were almost flat and everyone just rode shoulder to shoulder. Deep concentration on the movement of the women around me was all I can remember. There were a couple of lame attacks off the front, but nothing that anyone worried about and nothing that stuck.

A few girls got shelled off the back when we hit the first little climb, but the group stayed largely together as we descended into the town of Union. Rain showers had visited us off and on for the first half of the race, a few glimpses of lightening in the distance and many foreboding clouds, but it was on this descent that the skies really opened up.

The rain was coming down in huge drops and everyone was a bit twitchy. I was second from the left as we headed downhill in the rain. A screech of brakes caused me to glance over my shoulder just as a Gentle Lovers kit skidded and hit the deck.

Bike on asphalt. Bad sound.

I saw it happen in slow motion, but just as quickly, I snapped back to reality as the peleton rode on. Should I stop? No, keep riding.

Next came a few small hills that started to tire out some legs. I could see people slipping back, not sure how many riders were still behind me. I only knew the lead group was all together.

Then came the climb over Frazier Pass. The group shattered to pieces. The acceleration caught me a little off guard and I had to work my way through some slower riders to regain connection with the first chase group. Terry Shesby and two other girls were off the front and out of sight. I rode with the chase group for a couple of miles, feeling strong, but lost a wheel on a steep descent and couldn’t bridge the gap.

In the distance, I could see the break and the chase group. I was in no-man’s land; time trialing with all I had.

I looked behind me, I couldn’t see the next group. The group I was trying to catch was getting further and further away. I looked at my computer, 31mph. It was almost flat road; How can they be going that fast?

I quickly reminded myself that I was one and they were 6 and I had better put my head down and push if I didn’t want to get caught. I road alone for 14 miles.

With 10 miles to the finish the group chasing me came into sight. They weren’t too far behind. The group ahead of me has slowed down, but they were still out of my reach.

I have been told that if you are going to get caught, it is better to just sit up and wait instead of wearing yourself out.

I wasn’t willing to give up that easily. I didn’t want to get caught.

I attacked the climb out of Medicine Creek; hoping I could hold on for just a few more miles.

Then, from behind, I saw MacKenzine Madison. She had broken from the group and bridged up to me. I was not going to let her go.

There’s a group right there, they are going to catch us, MacKenzie said.

No they’re not, I replied. Let’s work together.

She started pulling up the hill, I was right on her wheel, determined to stick. Between labored breaths I said, I can’t help right now, give me a minute.

I sat in, steadying my pace and my heart rate.

After a couple of minutes I took my turn.

If I am slowing down, you have to tell me. She agreed and soon gave me the encouragement I needed by saying we were pulling away from our chasers.

I looked at my computer as we crested the climb with the first chase group in sight. Four miles to go. Serena, hold on, just 4 more miles. Mackenzie moved in front just as we passed the 3k sign. Only 3k to go, not 4 miles. I could do this.

On the final descent, I stayed with the wheel in front of me. I was glued to it. I couldn’t let it go. I took a pull. We passed the 1km sign and Mackenzie moved in front. I was right behind her, 200 km to the finish. She found another gear. I stood up, my legs shaking. MacKenzie beat me to the line, but we were given the same time.

I rolled slowly down the road, catching my breath. When the results were posted that evening, I learned I had finished 8th, 4 minutes down.

Stage 2: Pleasant Valley Time Trial

Saturday morning brought cool weather and clear skies; ideal for the day ahead. The start list for the time trial had been posted. I would go off at 9:54; 30 seconds ahead of MacKenzine.

11.3 miles of all-out effort. 411 feet of climbing, out and back course, head winds on the way back in.

After a good warm up, I headed to the starting line. Equipped with my clip-on aero bars and brand new Giro Advantage 2 TT Helmet, I looked fast…. Well, sort of.

The first couple seconds of the TT is always a bit scary. Someone holding your seatpost until the official counts down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Then – GO!! Stand up, a couple of hard pedal strokes to get up to speed and then into the aerobars, and just go – HARD.

The course was non-technical, but seemed to be uphill both ways. At the turn around, I had passed one rider and was relieved that Mackenzie had not yet caught me. I made the turn and was heading back toward Baker City, gaining on the rider ahead of me, as MacKenzie, on her very pretty Cervelo TT Bike cruised on past. My legs were going as hard as they could; I made them go faster.

I finished 1:12 behind Mackenzie. The GC remained unchanged for me; I was still sitting in 8th.

Stage 3: Gold Rush Criterium

While crits continue to be a game of survival for me, I am beginning to feel much more comfortable about lining up with 80+ women and am starting to have a little fun. My goal for the 40 minute rat race was to stay safe, out of trouble and with the lead pack. You don’t win a stage race by winning the crit, and while you don’t want to loose time, finishing in the lead pack gives you the same time as everybody else and you don’t have to tire out your legs too much. Down side of my strategy: No OBRA points and no prems.

I sat just off the front for the entire race, going with the group when the leaders decided it was time to accelerate, sitting in when it was time to rest.

My strategy worked beautifully and when the last lap came, I crossed the line with everybody else.

Much to my surprise, a few girls close to me in the GC didn’t remember to stay with the pack and lost some time. I moved up in the GC to 7th.

Stage 4: Mt Dooley Road Race

I woke up before my alarm Sunday morning to the sound of heavy rain. The race was scheduled for an 8am start; the forecast called for heavy rain and temperatures in the high 30s.

102 miles, 7075ft of climbing, a finish atop Mt Dooley.

The thought of what laid ahead didn’t sound amazingly appealing, but everyone had to deal with the same conditions. Suck it up!

I felt fortunate to have packed my booties, although an investment in a rain jacket was one I have yet to make. I put a trashbag down the front of my jersey and called it good. It would have to do.

We rode over to the high school through sheets of rain. It was already crowded when we arrived. Plastic clad cyclists, milling about.

Then the announcement was made. The Mt Dooley Road Race would be shortened from 102 miles to just 24; 10 miles of flat road leading out of town, then up the back side of Mt. Dooley.

Disappointment and relief came over me simultaneously. I had been looking forward to this race for a sometime as a chance to test myself. At the same time I was excited that I would not have to make 2 long descents with frozen fingers.

The neutral roll out took us out of town, but even when the pace car sped up, the peleton didn’t accelerate much. The rain was still heavy and the roads wet.

I was in the first 1/3 of the group, right in the middle of the pack. As we rolled toward Mt Dooley and the base of the climb, we all stayed together. I moved forward in the group and to the far left just before the start of the climb.

I had expected an obvious acceleration by the leaders as soon as we started upward, but instead it was gradual. The pace quickened, dropping a few girls off the back, but not enough to break the main group.

Then the grade steepened and things started to shatter. The front group was off the front before I knew it.

I was on the wheel of a strong climber, someone I had excepted to crush this stage. Poor choice; she did not have this in her plans for the day. Crap! A gap had formed and I needed to be on the other side of it.

A rider came by me on the left, moving quickly, I jumped on her wheel. Together we moved in between riders as we passed then, our goal set on the group of 3 ladies ahead. We soon caught and passed them. Our group has swelled to 5 or 6. I was second wheel and felt like we need to push the pace and moved to the front. According to my computer, we had about 9 miles to go. I sped up, but not enough to drop anyone, but we were gaining on a few riders that had been shelled from the lead group… we would catch them. Things were going my way.

With about 8 miles to go I saw the 3km sign. What?? 3km? This race was only going to be 18 miles long. I needed been get my butt in gear.

I looked behind me, shifted and stood up. I had to go for it. Now or never. Within a couple of pedal strokes, I was alone. The group behind did not follow me.

I could see the group of 3 I wanted to catch climbing up the next switch back; about 45 seconds ahead of me.

By the time I reached the 1km sign, I was only about 15 seconds behind the 3 riders and no one was behind me.

Stand up, pedal, count, sit down, count, stand up.

200km to go. I stood up. I crossed the line, 6 seconds behind the group I was chasing.

Deep breath.

My computer said 18.12miles. Not the 25miles I had planned for, not the 25 miles I had paced for. That is what happens when the course changes 5 minutes before the race starts.

Raincoat covered numbers delayed results until Tuesday and it wasn’t until then that saw my placement for the final stage or the GC.

A 4th place finish atop Mt Dooley moved me up to 6th in the General Classification. My first Cat 3 race. I was competitive.

My legs are getting stronger, but more importantly, I am learning a thing or two about road racing. In a road race, you have to make thousands of tiny moves; some of large consequence, some not so important.

In this crazy game of chess that we call bike racing, I am making some of the right moves and some of the little ones I don't have to think so much about.