Stage races are great because you get to race and hang with your teammates in a much more dynamic environment than one-day events. Each race presents a new challenge and goal for the team, and riders of different abilities have something to look forward to each day. You have the added challenge of considering how your racing one day will affect the following day. This type of racing is better for teams because rather than individuals just driving to and from a single race, you stay together allowing for team bonding as well as race strategy discussions and just funny anecdotes from each event.
After packing a ton of Specialized Venge frames and Zipp wheels into our cargo-generous Toyota Tundra, we made our way to the Thunderhill Raceway in Willows near Chico. There was a threat of rain on the forecast, but the weather that day was beautiful. The setting was beautiful with rolling green hills spotted with oak trees. (Thanks so much to Alex Chiu for taking photos to show posterity!) Anyway, racing on car race tracks is very fun, but usually uneventful unless there's a big climb or a lot of wind (Laguna Seca comes to mind), so our plan for the race was to spend as little energy as possible covering any serious moves. We assumed that nothing was going to stay away. After the race, we were chatting and estimated that the average power at the front of the race was probably somewhere around 450w. So really, it's no big deal if you wanted to get off the front and stay away, because all you'd have to do is pedal close to 500w all the way to the line to hold it... Clearly, nobody in the field could or wanted to do that. There were a bunch of moves, and it was great to see Team Mike's Bikes covering them with no stress. For the most part, the course lends itself to covering moves once you've done a few laps and can read the course and how the field moves through it. Still, though, with 2 hours in the race, there's much time to waste energy before the road race the next day.
By the end of the race, we all had covered moves, but with 3 laps to go, it was clearly a day for a sprint finish. We at Mike's did a pretty good job of assembling and getting ready to lead out Colin, Chris, and Travis for a run at the finish line. Over the hill on the last lap, in retrospect, we could have timed things just a bit differently, but with over 160 guys in the field, it's sometimes tough to gauge exactly when and where to take the front. Still, we protected our GC finishers through a few hundred meters to go (shout out to Adam who got pushed off the track into the gravel with under 1k to go and still made up room on the field in the process). It was fantastically fast in the last 200m to the finish riding close to 40 mph. Colin and Chris were our top placed finishers in a tough sprint, but everyone in the field pretty much got the same time, so we were all good to go for the road stage on Saturday. With several a deep team of time-trialists and Chris in the green kersey, we were pleased with how things were going so far.
Saturday's road stage started in an awesome regional park in the foothills near Orland before the course took us through some loose gravel, around Paskenta, and back. With 160 competitors, narrow roads, and gravel, the plan was simple: get to the front, ride through the gravel in the front group, and watch wind on the back half of the course. Travis set us up by pulling the Mike's train into the gravel about 12 miles into the race. The fight for the gravel was tough for some riders, but for the most part it was uneventful with the strength and experience that Mike's has, everyone but Travis made it cleanly into the front group out of the gravel. The was a major selector as the field was cut in half. Roman and Adam warned to be attentive to possible wind on the back-side of the course, and we all know that wind can be the meanest part of any race. It turned out that first lap had little, so we just cruised around and covered moves. With only a 1/3 of the race complete, these moves weren't the best option, so I decided to chill out in the field. With the gravel section coming up again and the breeze picking up on the back-side, nothing was going to get away of any importance to the race overall. Mostly likely, the field was just going to split up more and more on the gravel and in the windy over the last 20 miles. So, our goal right now was to keep Colin and Chris protected and fresh for the finish.
Coming up on the finish of lap one, I tried to help lead out Chris for more green jersey points. Unfortunately there was a crash, and now matter how aero your Zipps are, it's tough to beat Holloway after swerving around crashes.
Alas, the rough Chico roads began to take their toll on Team Mike's Bikes . Max, then Roman, then Craig, and I had mechanical issues through the rough roads and gravel. Our mechanic, Caesar, was driving in the caravan and did a great job getting Roman back into the field. Roman made the front group with Reese, Colin, and Chris. Caesar helped Craig and I chase back on, for several miles, with the help of caravan-drafting. Just as we were getting back on, another crucial race split was happening, Chris and Colin did well to make it into the front end of a split, but some of us were caught out. We all knew it was going to happen that way, but it was just a bit of bad timing for our flats that it happened then. At the same time, it's just because we had an experienced driver/mechanic helping us in the caravan that some of us were even still in the frontmost group so late in the race. Teams without that support had no chance... Long story short, there was a frantic and unorganized chase by some riders in the second group that did not got nowhere. Chris had the last and worst mechanical of the day at the worst time possible just outside of 3k to go, while in the front group. Colin smashed it and almost won, but some guy named Brad Huff took first with Colin closing in on 2nd.
The last day came down to the TT, really. Even though the crit was the last event, the TT was what was going to determine whether Colin could move up onto the top spot. TTs are nice because you don't have to worry about tactics or your competition so much as you need to make sure that your equipment's working and focus on your routine and effort. Caesar slaved away the night before the TT to ensure out bikes were set, so that much we didn't have to worry about. Then it's not so much a matter of luck or tactics, just fitness and a desire to suffer for 20 minutes. Pretty simple, I figure.
A few of us could ride a solid TT, but only Colin had a chance at the win overall. He's a strong dude and rode an awesome TT for 10th with an aero'd out Venge, but came out of the TT in 3rd overall. I'm writing the race report, so out of obligation, I'll point out that I was our highest placed TT finisher in 5th, just 3 seconds off the podium. I figured I got 5th at the US Pro TT a few years ago, so maybe I'd start this year off there. Makes sense, right?! Congrats to Justin Rossi for a great ride. We all know he's gunning for top TT placings this year, and will definitely be up there each time out.
After the TT, we made our way to the crit for 75 minutes of fast-paced pain. During which, I kept waiting for the moment we would stop running around in circles and head off to the mountain top finish, but I think the race officials didn't get the memo, and we just kept doing 28 mph laps. The race tactics played out so that a move never really got off the front, because a few teams just kept chasing things down, so the race never really relaxed. For the most part, it made the race less enjoyable, but also made it better training for future races. Especially for me, this was my first crit in well over a year, and a few hundred sprints out of corners was a much-needed workout. Ultimately, there were a few good moves we got in, especially Max, but the race finished with Colin right near the front. Sadly, with time bonuses, Huff jumped Colin in the GC standing after winning the crit, so he ended up 4th overall.
Everything about the team this last weekend was great. We all enjoyed the time out together and did what we needed to do in each of the races. Our equipment was great, the bikes were fast, even the Specialized Evade proved TT-worthy against others with full-aero setups. Overall, it was a fun weekend. Nobody got hurt, and our hosts were excellent! Everyone raced very well, and we all know that we're in position to get better results and more wins in the coming weeks and months. The team is getting the season started off on the right foot.